English singer-songwriter John Smith’s sixth full-length studio album, The Fray, is primarily a laid-back affair. It’s not because he’s a chill dude. The opposite is true. He’s had a rough year (who hasn’t?) and uses music as a way of connecting with friends, family and grounding himself in the things that matter. The results suggest the benefits of calmly doing what it takes to get by but leave one a bit hungry for more. Getting angry may not solve anything, but crashing and burning have their rewards. Smith understands this and asks if he’s “deserving” of love with respect to his stoicism. He implies the answer is “yes”, but is it really?
It’s not fair to judge another person’s strategy for dealing with life and one’s troubles. Smith’s not impassive as much as defensive. He “pulls the curtain overhead/hush the voices in my head” as a way of bringing out the best in himself. Smith mostly sings in a quiet voice so as not to disturb. It makes sense to stifle oneself and not drive one’s lover crazy, but the limitations of this behavior are clear. No wonder he sings that he always feels like a stranger looking for kindness in others.
Life is a struggle. For Smith, “The Fray” of existence is more than an existential argument. Yet, for all of his complaints, he is an optimist. Sure, one becomes ragged and worn out, but the fight to keep on keeping on has its rewards. And there are other people and their positive recompense. Smith is assisted by some stellar guest musicians on the album, including Sarah Jarosz, Bill Frisell, Lisa Hannigan, and the Milk Carton Kids, who demonstrate this principle through their contributions. Smith co-produced the record with his friend and fellow Englishman Sam Lakeman.
Smith plays lead acoustic guitar on most cuts, with some electric guitar added for emphasis as needed. He’s backed by a small combo (Ben Nichols, bass; Jay Sikora, drums; Marcus Hamblett, horns, Emma Gattrill, clarinet; Jason Rebello, piano) who add a formal layer to the proceedings. They are not a rock band as much as a baroque band (the pun is intentional). There is a self-conscious prettiness to the music. That implies that the sentiments expressed in the lyrics result from rich emotions more than deep thought.
That’s why Smith takes things “One Day at a Time”. He’s not an addict in recovery as much as a realist wanting to believe in something. Smith doesn’t know if anyone is listening to his prayers as much as he needs to pray. His mind may tell him that there is no meaning in pain, but he can’t accept that on a visceral level. He ends the song, and the album, gently howling. The 12 tracks on The Fray intimately indicate that licking one’s wounds quietly, remaining peaceful, and counting one’s blessings can soothe and even bring a modicum of happiness. As John Lennon used to sing, “Whatever gets you through the night.” This strategy of laying low works for Smith, while intellectually one may question it, the resulting music sounds skillful and accomplished—i.e., “It’s all right” indeed.