Part of the trick with songwriting is finding new ways to say things that have been said in songs for generations. This gets even trickier when it comes to songs about romance, as you’re pretty much dealing with the most popular topic ever. Maybe that’s why we get so excited upon hearing a love song that makes the impossible happen. Ron Sexsmith’s “Hard Bargain” is one of them.
Sexsmith is one of those songwriters who isn’t so much underrated as he is underheard by a wider audience. Upon doing a cover version of the song in 2004, Emmylou Harris gave an interview with Spinner UK and summed up what a lot of people in the know feel about Sexsmith’s ability: “I don’t know Ron very well, I have met him only a few times, but I am a fan of his music. Just about every singer-songwriter that you meet thinks Ron has hung the moon.”
When you listen closely to the subtle craftsmanship of “Hard Bargain,” you can understand why he is so beloved. The song is essentially a nifty piece of misdirection. When you usually hear someone say, “You drive a hard bargain,” it can be a pejorative statement, or, at best, can display grudging admiration. But the narrator here uses it to describe how the object of his affection keeps yanking him back from the brink of hard times and personal anguish, refusing to let him fall into the void.
Sexsmith begins by giving a qualified description of his state of being: “I’m a bit run down, but I’m okay/I just feel like calling it a day.” Depending on how severely you want to read the second part of that statement, it can refer to this guy either giving up on one calendar page or on hope itself. “But you send me back to the start,” he explains.
In the second verse, the narrator hints at self-destructive tendencies. “Each time I’m heading for nowhere/Bound and determined to get there,” he sings. But again, his love is there to rescue him: “It seems I never get that far/’Cause you drive a hard bargain.” In the bridge, there is some humor in the way he gently castigates her for her stubbornness: “How’s a guy supposed to fail with someone like you around?/I’ve tried and tried to no avail, you just can’t seem to let me down.”
Sexsmith’s world-weary delivery plays into the narrator’s downbeat nature, but he also conveys how grateful he is for interference. And in the final verse, he seems to finally accept his benevolent fate: “So I’ll keep on playing that old song/Cause for all I know it’s where I belong.” She seems to be saving him from both the slights of the encroaching world and from his own tendencies toward darkness. His triumph at song’s end is that he has finally learned to fulfill his end of the deal and accept her help.
Ron Sexsmith might not be the household name that he deserves to be. But “Hard Bargain” is nothing less than a modern standard. Considering Sexsmith’s soft-spoken nature, he’s likely content to let this perfectly constructed song do the talking to illuminate music’s most oft-covered subject.