Daniel Smith doesn’t make albums you can just put on and forget about, and Best of Gloucester County is no exception. It’s both profound and inane, noisy, and not infrequently shrill. If there’s one thing ringleader Smith understands, it’s that the best music demands reaction as much as reflection. So he speaks your language, taking the mundane lexicon of growing up — lawnmowers, neighbors, and pajamas all make appearances here — and subsuming them beneath erratic arrangements and the wild cadences of an evangelist. Like the rest of the Danielson discography, Gloucester County is challenging listening, retaining only the faintest of musical links to the conventions of ordinary songwriterdom. And shit, does this guy have fans?
Evidently yes. Sufjan Stevens’ banjo playing and Rick Moody’s press release make for pretty unassailable indie credentials. Gloucester County is the first Danielson release in five years, and it feels more contained and arranged than their earlier albums. On “Grow Up,” Smith reflects on the changes in his life since then: “My social life’s gone/ And I’m mowing my lawn/ When I should be up on that stage/ With the glitz and my rage.” It’s kind of funny to hear laments over lost youth from a musician I’ve always thought had a wonderfully strange paternal quality. Smith curates his own Sounds Familyre label, which showcases some of the most interesting Christian music out there. And reports from the Danielson Familie’s early performances characterize him as a manic ringleader.
Smith sure has lots of crazy ideas about God and religion. So when he opens “the Book of Daniel” on the first track, is he just invocating? Deconstructing references to other literature can be intellectually dodgy. It can add new dimension to a creative work or be the critical equivalent of reading tealeaves. Since there’s definitely a self-mythologizing aspect to Danielson (see: band name), let’s run with the reference a bit. When it’s taught to kids, the biblical book of Daniel is usually a lesson in faithfulness: trust in the Lord, and he’ll save you from the lion’s den, etc. Sunday School teachers often overlook the fact that, in addition to pacifying lions, Daniel’s real talent was interpreting dreams and having apocalyptic visions. The passage has been grist for the likes of Johnny Cash (“Belshazzar”), and the bits about kingdoms built on sand have endured too. On Gloucester County, Smith arranges the icons of his childhood into an apocalyptic vision of his own.
Fans of psychedelic music know that sometimes you just have to get over the fact that New Age spiritual paeans don’t really fit the contours of normal melodies all that well. Ditto here, with a different religion. But in “This Day is a Loaf,” it’s actually kind of fun to hear Smith try to squeeze in a whole bunch of extra syllables at the end of otherwise conventional verses. “Denominator Bluise,” meanwhile, is a lesson in abruptness, with interlocking guitar parts that suit Smith’s calmed-down voice and a chorus that crossbreeds Freddy Mercury and Andrew Lloyd Webber in equal measure.
The only way you can’t approach Best of Gloucester County is neutrally. And it takes suspendin’ some serious disbelief to buy into the Danielson vision, but I think it’s worth it. The suburbanite vocabulary might just sound inane to some people — two of the first four tracks contain lines about bread — and sometimes the songs don’t prove to be as musically rewarding as the concepts — “Hovering Above the Hill” is a mostly forgettable folk-raga thing except for Smith’s faint caterwauling from the depths of a reverb-chasm — but tear into Daniel Smith’s theosophizing and you’ll likely find something worthwhile.