The Smith Westerns have always been a pop rock band; the question is what kind of pop rock band? Comprised of brothers Cullen (the lead singer/guitarist) and Cameron Omori, second guitarist Max Kakacek and drummer Julien Ehlrich, they released their self-titled debut on the Chicago noise-pop specialists Hozac Records in 2010. The record was an exhilarating collection of rough-hewn garage rock blasts of adolescent escapism in the style of Nuggets, while its successor, Dye It Blonde toned down the distortion and brought the band towards a cleaner, classic early ‘70s glam sound. The unifying element of both albums however, was the lyrical focus on boilerplate (albeit rapturously-delivered) romantic themes. Their third album, Soft Will, initially seems to continue this sonic progression, buffing the band’s already-shiny sound to an almost overwhelmingly bright gloss. But the lyrics are where the band starts tinkering with the formula from previous records.
Although it was the last song written for Soft Will, “Varsity” perhaps best captures the group’s current headspace. After two albums of bubblegummy lyrics full of puppy love and partying, they’re finally left alone, smoking on the senior deck and contemplating what comes next. Like Alex Chilton’s similarly spurned character in “September Gurls”, Omori plays a December boy fighting loneliness. In previous Smith Westerns songs romance was an exciting discovery, here on the other side of heartbreak, it’s more of a crutch – a desperate necessity. The longing in “Varsity” ties in directly to the record’s opening song “3am Spiritual”, which also finds Omori trying to come to grips with the loss of a girl. In a wounded, bittersweet moment he tries halfheartedly to move on while also admitting “I don’t want to let off my heart”. These kind of conflicted lyrics are a new direction for the band, one which can work well at times (such as the melancholic “Idol”) but also feel a bit forced at others (as in the clunky moaning of “White Oath”). The shift is pronounced to the point that the upbeat ode “Best Friend”, which would have blended in on earlier records, comes off here as a refreshing change of pace.
The group’s music-writing process is also clearly undergoing a maturation process. Although they still churn out instantly-engaging guitar pop like it’s going out of style, Soft Will finds them showing a little more restraint in their song structures. While songs on the first two Smith Westerns albums tended to burst out of the gate, hooks blazing, the new material starts strong but tends to build momentum slowly. The songs here are swathed layers of warm, comforting reverb and keys that give them a gauzy sheen. The music also eschews dramatic highs and lows, preferring to bask in a mid-tempo range that allows songs to swell gracefully into sweet, well-earned solos whose gliding elegance almost manages to conceal their impressive melodic bite. Unfortunately, an overabundance restrained lushness can eventually become too much of a good thing here as the four-and-a-half minutes of instrumental uninspiration of “XXIII” proves.
Of course, this all brings us back to that original question: what kind of band does the Smith Westerns want to be? Going from snotty garage rockers, to indie Marc Bolans made a certain amount of sense. However now that they’ve embraced even sparklier sounds and combined them with lyrics that now tend towards that other ‘70s stereotype, the singer-songwriter, it’s hard to figure out what exactly it is that the group is going for. Simple, sunny lyrics are fine when they’re clearly just serving the purposes of gleeful three-chord outbursts but it’s more difficult to figure out what to do with skillful but relaxed mid-tempo meditations that are tuneful but whose lyrical purpose is ultimately unclear.
Soft Will, like previous Smith Western albums, still brims with hooks but it never quite resolves if it’s still just good-time summer pop, dark-night-of-the-soul rumination or some sort of Summerteeth-esque middle ground. The songs still undoubtedly deliver a healthy heaping of hooks-per-square as it oozes out of your car stereo but, there won’t be much singing along this time around. Now that they’re no longer content to simply dance the night away, the group needs to figure out what they want to do instead. As it stands, Omori sums the current predicament nicely in the simple chorus of “White Oath” when he proclaims “I’m trying to catch my breath.”