[21 September 2008]
Cozy. That’s how Catie Curtis’s polite folk-ish songs feel: snug as a bug in a rug. The vague threats of heartbreak and sadness that occasionally nibble on the edges of songs like “What You Can’t Believe” and “Fools” never really stand a chance against the pervasive optimism, never mind the buoyant, comfortable pop-rock arrangements. In that sense, Curtis’s Sweet Life is the definition of mood music, songs about relationships and their accompanying emotions that sink or swim depending on one’s receptivity to sentimentality at a given moment. If you like your music snuggly, familiar, and reassuring, there is nothing not to like about this record. Curtis knows how to craft her songs for maximum effect. Bridges provide just the right amount of structural tension, choruses explode with sunny hooks, and the songs ultimately resolve as if tied up with pretty pink ribbon. As she sings on “For Now”, “If I wake up weary, I still want you near me / Like my favorite song”. So, so cozy.
Curtis’s songs feel deeply personal, yet at the same time strive to be universal. These two aims, however, are often at odds enough to cancel each other out. The title track contains some specifics that ring true in its litany of broken relationships and old heartache, but it’s still big and broad enough for listeners to relate to. The song begs one to make easy connections. Ever been dumped? Ever had a lover try to change you into something you’re not? This song’s for you! And the good news is, it was all worth it, because those were just the means to the happy end you’re at now with your current love. Now, I’m not so much of a curmudgeon to believe that the themes and ideas of “Sweet Life” aren’t ever worth exploring, but I’d at least like them to be interesting. Too many of the songs on the album feel like summaries, as if everything is already figured out, put in place, with nothing new to learn or discover.
It’s not as if there aren’t moments when Curtis truly shines, but they’re glossed over, or dampened by tried and truisms. “Everything Waiting to Grow” boasts a bright and sparkling arrangement of organ and strummy guitar, and the lyrics utilize some fine desert detail, but it all ends up as expected. The bridge asks for “a little bit of rain” and declares, “the desert will bloom”, all neat and tidy. “Happy” trades in numerous, sometimes interesting images, a heart “made from a ball of clay”, and “laughing in fractions”, but the harmonized chorus of “Come on, come on, let yourself be happy” is cloyingly sweet. Curtis sings “I’ll show you how”, but doesn’t ever actually show.
Only the slightly goofy “Lovely”, which maintains a sense of playful fun and humor, earns its easy straightforwardness, which is probably because it’s flirting with a genre other than adult-contemporary. The classic, lounge-y, piano-based pop of “Lovely” seemingly gives Curtis license to loosen up. The song is dead simple, but it knows what it is, and doesn’t pretend to bestow some profound insight that isn’t so profound, such as the line “A river born in the mountains starts over in the sea” in the closer, “Over”. The album’s lone cover is the surprising choice of Death Cab for Cutie’s “Soul Meets Body”, but on closer inspection, it’s entirely appropriate—lots of “you’s” and “me’s” and looking for deep meaning in sunshine, brown eyes, held hands, etc. Once again, all that’s well and good, and very, very popular, but what is unique about it to make it more worthy of your time than any number of similar heartfelt paeans?