Catchy tunes, dreamy textures and wistful nostalgia for misspent youth on the Chicago band’s third album
On 2011’s ‘Dye It Blonde’, Smith Westerns upped the production values of the lo-fi scuzz on their 2009 self-titled debut and gave it a brighter, glossier sheen. The Chicago quartet (singer-guitarist Cullen Omori, his brother and bassist Cameron, guitarist Max Kakacek and drummer Julien Ehrlich) embraced glam rock and made a record that glowed. Two years later, follow-up ‘Soft Will’ has a similarly warm sparkle. But it’s more laid-back than its predecessor – the band’s interest in Marc Bolan and T. Rex has waned a little – and these 10 songs evoke those never-ending, carefree summers that only happen when you’re young. From the tender ache of opener ‘3am Spiritual’ and Omori’s sighing first line – “It’s easier to think you’re dumb, like you were” – through to the string-laden finale of ‘Varsity’, the album reflects on the past, and the passing of time. It wholeheartedly succeeds, and it’s pure nostalgia.
As with ‘Dye It Blonde’, Chris Coady (Beach House, Wavves, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, TV On The Radio) produces. He’s helped bring to life ‘Soft Will’’s dominant idea of wistful memories and a misspent youth by amping up the dreamy textures of psychedelic-era Beatles. Listen to the sumptuous tones of ‘Best Friend’ – a lovelorn and trippy song that’s a close relation to Tame Impala’s softer moments – with its optimistic chorus of “you’re the one”, and you’re transported to a lazy afternoon spent with someone special. These feelings are amplified by the instrumental ‘XXIII’, with its graceful piano sections. Cullen Omori’s lyrics, too, are all about exploring times gone by. Over the wistful melody of ‘White Oath’, for example, we get a story about a man who “chain-smoked my days away/Wrote my poems even though no-one will ever read them”. It’s blissful and calm.
But being young isn’t just about spending time doing very little; it’s also about feelings of unrequited love and confusion. Those days were beautiful, but melancholy too. ‘Best Friend’ also features Omori asking the simple question “Why won’t you let me see you again?” over ‘Champagne Supernova’ guitars. This is Smith Westerns, after all, so you’re never too far from a Britpop reference. The band’s interest in that era has always meant a dedication to writing catchy songs. And now that he’s no longer covering everything in fuzz, it’s easy to hear just how good Kakacek is at writing memorable tunes: the debut album’s ‘Be My Girl’ and ‘Boys Are Fine’ were perfect little indie earworms, and ‘Soft Will’’s ‘Fool Proof’ is an update on a traditional minor-chord jangle. Suddenly we’re in Beatles territory again, but that’s OK. Because there’s a lot to love about music that’s as head over heels in love with youth as ‘Soft Will’ is. Long live summer.