Anyone awake in the dark after the world has gone to sleep knows how disorienting it can be. Even the most familiar settings are strange in the blackness. Finding one’s way in the nocturnal hours becomes an adventure and an accomplishment. The absence of light brings out primal and feral instincts. Nashville singer-songwriter ZG Smith understands these feelings. His soft rock, psychedelic folk, and indie pop music capture the exotic in the quotidian circumstances of life. The six songs on his latest EP, Nighttime Animal, sonically recreate the mystery of what it feels like to be present in the moment when everything seems strange.
It’s one thing to flail and move cautiously in the unfamiliar. Instead, ZG Smith cautiously desires to take control of his bewildering situation. He begins the title track by boldly wishing he was “lost and could never be found” like some creature of the night. However, he knows the dark doesn’t last forever, and that day people make all the rules. Smith may enjoy the fantasy, but he’s a realist. In a world full of regulations, he would rather opt out and celebrate life.
In the other songs, he may clamor to “Let Me Back In” lest he “Languish”. He appreciates a “Sure Thing” and the “Hooks” of a committed relationship where a lover may be told, “You Always Have Been Mine”. What thematically ties them together is the shared sense of time going by while the narrator tries to puzzle out who and where he is and how he got there. The “Sure Thing” he celebrates is what he wants, not what he has. What he has learned is that life is not fair. “Twenty / Twenty hindsight is the cruelest of fates,” he declares in “Languish”. No wonder he would prefer dancing in the dew like a wild animal more than living as a human being.
Smith has a silky voice with a slight grittiness. This gives his ethereal sound grounding in the real world of desire. He melodically strums his acoustic guitar so that the music flows underneath his singing. He smoothly delivers his lyrics with a lilt so that one doesn’t always know when he has stopped singing and the instrumental lines have fully taken over. The general mood is pleasant and seductive. The results are denser than they initially seem. Even when he spouts cliches, he mixes his metaphors to create something more complicated and profound. “I don’t know what’s left to find / We shoot horses / All the beggars would ride,” Smith croons nonchalantly. The point is we don’t know what’s next or even what’s now. We can still wish and dream even if it all comes to naught.
Smith co-produced the record with Jonathan Smalt, producer and drummer for Devon Gilfillian. The EP also features Gilfilian himself (“Hooks”), Taylor Thompson (bass), Blake Reams (pedal steel), and Josh Baylock (keyboards). They keep a low profile in the best sense. Their solos serve the magic of the songs rather than show off the players’ chops. Like the vocals, the mix is more complex than it initially seems. Nighttime Animal presumes that what appears naturally and uncomplicated at first is more mysterious than it seems. “All my regrets come from playing it safe,” ZG Smith sings. A walk in the dark is not a walk in the park; that trip is there to be taken every night if one dares.