opinion by BENJI TAYLOR
Growing up – it’s tough, even for rockstars. So many awesome debuts are heavily informed by stories of wanton over-indulgence, white lines and chasing skirt (The Strokes, Oasis, The Libertines). But you can’t really sing about trying to get the ride forever, can you? Smith Westerns were mere whipper-snappers when their debut began to garner attention back in 2009 – and they followed the patterns, both sonically and thematically, set by the British bands that their sound was heavily indebted to – Oasis, Suede, T-Rex.
Though their first LP was a grand piece of lo-fi garage-rock, it was very much a product of its time; no band member was out of their teens at the time of its release. And boys must become men (most of the time…). With third album Soft Will, Smith Westerns find themselves at a cross-roads at which they must ask themselves a question – what kind of band do we want to be?
Gorgeously dreamy opening track “3am Spiritual” answers the question – and shows that the band have engaged in some serious soul-searching. It’s a slow-burning meld of dazzling keyboards and melancholic fretwork, swaying along around Cullen Omori’s otherworldly vocal – simultaneously heart-warming and heart–rending. Just when you think it can’t get any better it explodes into a Beatles-esque starburst of “whoah-yeahs!”. Paul McCartney and Brian Wilson would be proud.
Formerly celebrated party-smashers with an unquenchable thirst for revelry, Soft Will finds the band at their most innovative and reflective to date. Producer Chris Coady has ramped up the silkier production skills employed on their sophomore, and encouraged the band to daub from a palette more layered and textured than one they’ve previously drawn from.
“Best Friend” is a wonderful piece of forlorn psychedelic balladry which finds Omori reminiscing about days spent with a lover he has long since parted with. The soothing “White Oath” on the other hand is a refined paean to spending time alone, indulging in the simple pleasures (in this case chain smoking and penning poetry that you know no-one will ever read) that you’ve long since abandoned. Other highlights include the mix of wraithlike vocals and cascading rhythms of “Glossed,” and the vortex of sky-scraping synths and reeling guitars on eerily perfect album closer “Varsity.”
It’s not a record that immediately knocks you out with its beauty or brilliance but, rather like a lover on a first date that you can’t quite banish from your mind the following day, that first listen plants seeds that might eventually blossom into a fully-fledged obsession.
While Soft Will is more inventive and expansive than their previous two albums, there’s no complete mould breaking here – this is still very much a Smith Westerns record. Guitars are important but are not at the forefront, with Coady bringing in more layered orchestration and synths than we’ve seen in the past. The longing and yearning that seeps into the tracks is reminiscent of Arcade Fire’s last LP at times but, where The Suburbs was about a search for the notion of home in the face of an ever-shrinking world, this is a more of an aural homage to an idealised misspent youth. It’s best summed up by Omori’s wistful intonation of the opening line on the album: “it’s easier to think you’re dumb, like we were…”
Key to the success of the album is that Coady and the band recognise their limitations – Omori is not the strongest vocalist, but he has a way with heartfelt melodies and dreamy compositions. Ultimately Soft Will is Smith Westerns’ contemplative love letter to their past, laden as much with affection as it is with melancholy.
Making music this fuzzy and wonderful is a notable feat. Making tunes that make you want to jump into a time-travelling DeLorean and materialise in yester-year, desperate to reenact the same wanton mistakes that you made the first time round? That’s a real achievement. [B+]