It’s easy to roll eyes at the concept of an album comprised entirely of love songs. Hasn’t that been done — perhaps superlatively — by groups like the Magnetic Fields, the Shins, the Beatles? Isn’t about every other pop song on the radio about love? And yet, former Smith Westerns frontman and self-proclaimed piece-of-shit Cullen Omori’s sophomore solo album The Diet proves that there’s more to be said. Recalling Andy Shauf’s The Party with its curiosity about sound, vocal quality, and narrative structure, Omori’s newest effort suggests that love isn’t dead — perhaps it was simply on hiatus.
Love songs can often have a stale nostalgia or, on the other side of the coin, over-exuberant anticipation. We’re all familiar with thumpy pump songs that anticipate a night with an attractive prospect ahead or a breakup album that succeeds through sulking in the rejection. However, The Diet lives in the present; Omori even reportedly wrote some of the tracks with his girlfriend at the time. The songs live beyond the realm of corporeal romance, instead often professing love for drugs, ideals, and beyond.
Perhaps the only straightforward love song on the album is “Natural Woman”, a song that explores the get-and-give of modern-day relationships. Omori sings, “Pink silk shorts and the pictures on TV / Your bedroom eyes make it hard to breathe now they’re part of me / Oh I want you, Oh I want you, Honey / there’s so much more to come / So many lonely people but I ain’t one.” His ability to expand the love song form while also living within it showcases a dual-talent for control and exploration, a gift that is the root of The Diet‘s sonic success.
It’s tired and tawdry, but it is important to acknowledge the big-band elephant in the room: Whitney. Omori’s solo work is the product of a bad breakup with Chicago twinkle Gods, the Smith Westerns. While ex-bandmates Max Kakacek and Julien Ehrlich splintered off with some mutual friends to form Whitney, Omori struck out on his own. For staunch Smith Westerns supporters, The Diet is a more natural listen, even escalating the sound that brought these boys initial acclaim. Even at their prime, Smith Westerns were mired with a sense of youthful joviality that bordered on naivety.
While Cullen’s breakout solo release New Misery was cloaked in a reactionary darkness to solidify his separateness, The Diet finds a balance between the lightheartedness of Omori’s earlier days and the reality of adulthood. Tracks “Happiness Reigns” and “Last Line” are most similar to the Smith Westerns sound with the trademark buzzy, billowy guitars that wail and cry along with Omori’s intense vocals. If you grew up listening to the Smith Westerns, the grown version of you will probably like this album.
Compositionally, The Diet is a masterpiece. Omori spins out detailed-yet-relatable lyrics. On “Borderline Friends”, he paints a picture of a familiar scene, “Denim jackets, garage patches of bands / Strummed out chords where the poetry forced in / So exersex, so over-texted / That you just want in / Oh, Borderline Friends.” Accessible while remaining artful, Omori’s voice provides a backbone for the album. Production-wise, Omori stays true to his DIY-roots with a scrappy sound and minute imperfections, while also fully utilizing Velveteen Studio’s Taylor Locke’s sophisticated production techniques.
Still, Omori shoots high without ever looking down at his listeners. In a statement released with the album, Omori explained, “My intention was never to be a rock classicist or to make something that was an extension of my influences.” And while some tracks, like lighthearted bop “Master Eyes”, are certainly reminiscent of greats like the Beatles, Omori avoids taking himself too seriously. The Diet has all of the trappings of pretension without falling down the trap of actually being pretentious.
On an album that charades as a straightforward, solid release, Omori still manages to surprise. For example, track “Quiet Girl” is gritty and rough, fully exposing his DIY roots. Closing song “A Real You”, transforms the shoegazey, conked-out vocals he presents elsewhere on the album and transports listeners to math-rock territory. The guitar is plunky and cheerful. Omori’s lyrics, usually very straightforward, seem like words he just strung together because they sound cool. He sings, “Cut-rate voodoo, waking up past noon / I choose the simple things with you / Both of us, only you, cable or paper-view / I try so hard just to love.” What does that mean, really? I don’t know, and I love it. This versatility, hinted at but not necessarily utilized in The Diet, bodes well for future projects.
“I never want to be haunted by the things I never did, Omori sings in “All”. In many ways, this statement has been the thesis of Omori’s solo work. While he seemed to view this fear of missing out as a challenge on debut solo album New Misery, it’s more of a fact of life in The Diet. Omori has spoken extensively in interviews about the privileges and problems of early fame. His acceptance of adult life — the life he is currently subsumed in— turns a new corner for the artist who’s been churning out music and touring since his high school days. While New Misery was steeped in severity and perhaps a strained sense of needing to prove oneself, The Diet cuts off the pretentious fat. The resulting sound is inventive, fun, fresh, and perhaps Omori’s best release to-date.