Kacy Hill, creative and gifted, does a wonderful job updating the sounds of 1980s synthpop and soul on her studio album, Simple, Sweet, and Smiling. Working with a roster of fab collaborators like Jim-E Stack, John Carroll Kirby, Ariel Rechtshaid, Mk.gee, and Ethan Gruska, Hill has given life to a lovely set of tunes that invokes the dreamy indie-pop of the 1980s. Unlike the bright, sparkly throwback dance albums that look back to that neon-doused decade, Hill’s album is exactly what the title claims: sweet and gorgeous. Though the album has a wide range of synthesizers, it’s not a cold or icy album, far from it. Hill finds the luscious warmth in synthpop. And within the gauzy production, her precious voice – a fragile, hummingbird of a trill – floats effortlessly.
Like other artists who have put out records this year, Hill worked on Simple, Sweet, and Smiling during the lockdown. Like artisans and bakers who found themselves turning to their art supplies and their kitchens during long periods of isolation, Hill turned to music. Opening up to Carter Fife of Ones to Watch, Hill cited the pandemic as the reason she followed up her sophomore set with her third album. “We were deep into lockdown,” she says, “so it was like, ‘What else am I going to do?'”
The album’s cover is a cheeky, campy nod to the ’80s pop that she so warmly embraces on the record, but that’s as far as irony goes. The comically-airbrushed album art with the fluorescent colors and the kitschy, cursive font belies the sincerity, angst, and urgency of the record, but it also points to the record’s source of inspiration. The album sounds like an elegiac sibling to Kyle Dixon’s and Michael Stein’s soundtrack to Stranger Things. Along with her songwriters and musicians, she takes musical cues from ’80s pop to create a shimmery, melancholy album.
Simple, Sweet, and Smiling opens with “I Couldn’t Wait”, which starts with a simple piano and Hill’s hushed voice. The piano sounds slightly churchy. As she sings, she shares her anxiety and feelings of restlessness with her listener, and the urgency is subtle and delicate. The piano ballad grows with a fuller sound, a humming synth fading in and out, and a summery bass, all of which creates a song that seems to marry synthpop with ’70s soul.
It’s a great opener because it sets the tone and mood of Simple, Sweet, and Smiling. Hill takes the angst of the past year – not just of the pandemic, but of her struggles with mental health as well as her father’s ill health – and works to address her feelings by making iridescent pop music.
That angst is beautifully rendered on the title track. Over a driving beat and chiming synthesizers, Hill’s voice coos airily, “And they’ll tell you the world’s never stopping / That it’s all just one big game” her delivery juxtaposes against the worried lyrics. That’s especially the case when she confides with her listeners that she’s “not cut out for the fast life” and she wished she “knew what it meant to feel heaven”. There are many sonic levels to the song, keyboards, and atmospheric washes that will recall the New Romantic pop of Japan, Depeche Mode, or the Thompson Twins. The homage to the plaintive synthpop is so stunning; it’s almost unbearably lovely.
“So Loud” is another song that pays tribute to the MTV New Wave pop of the 1980s. With Phil Collins-esque drums that interrupt the ruminative synthpop ballad, Hill’s lyrics are frank and candid, with the singer trying to sort out her feelings. When she sings, “‘Cuz talking is easy, baby, believe me / But to be quiet is so loud / That’s when all of my feelings / Go in the silence between them”, she is working out confronting her feelings of anxiety and apprehension.
Though not a dance album, there are moments that Hill stirs her listeners out of the enveloping coziness of the songs. “The Right Time” is a midtempo number that has light elements of synthfunk and R&B-lite. And “Easy Going” buzzes long on a skittering beat. She’s not calling her listeners on to the dance floor, and if there is any dancing to be done on Simple, Sweet, and Smiling, it’s the slow swinging dancing at the senior prom of an ’80s teen drama, but she finds a sweet spot of kicky uptempo sounds, as well.
Not content to stop at synthpop, Hill also finds space for delicate influences of country-pop as well. On the album’s closer, “Another You” employs a wall-to-wall synth sound accompanied by a sweetly strumming guitar. “Walking at Midnight” is another quietly country-influenced pop ballad that also seems to find inspiration in Marc Cohn’s 1991 soft-rock staple, “Walking in Memphis”. When Hill starts the chorus, singing “Walking in at midnight”, it sounds like she’s about to begin singing Cohn’s tune instead.
What makes Simple, Sweet, and Smiling so extraordinary is that Kacy Hill manages to pack an emotional wallop in seemingly sentimental pop songs. But Hill’s sharp, forthright lyrics and the lovely soundscape she’s created with her producers work to make an incredible album of stirring pop tunes that display an artist’s emotional vulnerability – and the strength she possesses to share it.