Soft Will is the third record by Smith Westerns, a three-piece rock ‘n’ roll band hailing from the Chicago metro that carry on the tradition of writing simple, earnest pop music on guitars. Three albums into their almost five-year-long career, Smith Westerns have gotten pretty good at being Smith Westerns. So, you might ask, what do Smith Westerns do? This is a very good question. It’s also particularly relevant here, because it is the central question at play on Soft Will.
The band’s place in today’s sonic landscape is peculiar because they are caught between two ideals that illustrate what I see as a generational gap between conceptions of value. In the past couple years, serious music-listening audiences have again embraced the pop song as an authentic mode of expression, whereas in the early millennium the designation of authenticity was more often reserved for sounds that were supposedly outside the mainstream. Those who purport to be “relevant” these days tend to pay attention to things that are exposed on a massive scale; the old hipster-bashing cliché “It’s called […] you’ve probably never heard of it” doesn’t have a lot of import anymore.
In my opinion, this re-opening of the critical ear to sounds once deemed invalid for their easily accessible and extremely public quality is the result of an inevitable and necessary about-face for Information Age listeners: how are we to keep the sonic underground sacred when all of its artifacts are just as easy for, say, my mom to access as they are for someone who spent all of the 90s trying to collect every rare Sonic Youth noise tape?
I think pop music resonates particularly well with people of my generation, because it is the sound of the least common denominator — to clarify, this is not a bad thing. Sharing things makes people feel close to one another, and sound is a perfect conductor for shared information. The pop song is a transcendent form for the networked being because it embraces and makes beautiful our inevitable sameness.
To bring the discussion back to the band and the record in question, Smith Westerns are in a weird position because they came of age in an era that incentivizes collectivism, but the songs they write evoke the era when the gods of rock ‘n’ roll still reigned supreme, where the Iggy Pops, David Bowies, and Marc Bolans were truly transcendent figures whose individuality was the source of their cultural value. This reluctance to denigrate the mythical rock ‘n’ roll dream of a bygone era makes the Smith Westerns outsiders in their own hometown scene, where garage-psych obscurity tends to garner more cred than pop sensibility.
Probably owing to this paradox, the question of authenticity has been on the tip of people’s tongues ever since Smith Westerns released their basement-recorded self-titled record on Hozac back in 2009, a scuzzy, T-Rex-worshiping slice of fuck it rock ‘n’ roll. To some, the record was a welcome dose of youthful popism that reaffirmed the elemental power of teenagers wielding only guitars and hormones; to others, it was a shitpile of derivative, bandwagoning, teenybopper banality that proved exactly how the indie aesthetic could be Disneyfied, shrink-wrapped, and sold in Walmarts across America (irrespective of Smith Westerns, this did happen). In 2011, the band’s glossy Fat Possum-backed sophomore effort Dye It Blonde garnered them a wider audience and even won over some past detractors, as it saw the Smith Westerns embracing the wide-eyed naivete of their own project, immersing themselves less in the reality of rock ‘n’ roll and more in its imaginary — a place more honest to who they were and much more interesting to hear them navigate.
So, even before the first chime of guitar fades in on Soft Will, the question of what’s next hangs over the record. As it turns out, the next evolution for Smith Westerns isn’t another bold shift of ethos, but a refinement and effacement of the one they carved out on Dye It Blonde. The panoramic balladry and saccharine melodies remain, now tempered with a tiny bit more restraint (really tiny) and a lot more Wild Nothing-esque synthesizer accents. Secret weapon Max Kakacek stills flashes his restrained guitar chops, laying down melodic leads and irreverent solos as the more relatable, everyman foil to lead singer and songwriter Cullen Omori’s strikingly-handsome sadboi persona. Lush, orchestral production manages to accent the band’s considerable live energy while also removing any traces of the sonic flaws inherent to an acoustic recording process.
Initially, Soft Will is a real treat to watch unfold in unhurried, widescreen gorgeousness, and that alone seems enough to justify songwriting that isn’t exactly daring or novel. But like all treats, too much sweetness can make you sick, and on repeated listens, Soft Will starts to get kind of repulsive. All of the delicate, precious tom buildups that segue into invariably lofty choruses, all laced with the same pining slide guitars, overlay the record with a strummy, mid-tempo delirium that sets in once the considerable swagger of the first three tracks wears off.
This record cements what some have always suspected to be Smith Westerns’ most overbearing tic — that is, an unrelenting compulsion to emote, a blind-faith determination to incite catharsis in the listener. Despite this ambition, the middle of the record really drags — instrumental centerpiece “XXIII” indulges in nearly five minutes of plodding and needlessly dramatic chord changes. The thoroughly middling “White Oath,” with its chorus, “Chain smoked my days away/ Wrote my poems/ Even though no one could ever hear them,” and tired resolution, “I’m trying to catch/ My breath,” ends up coming across as the ballad of a 23-year-old reluctantly entering adulthood who has exhausted himself doing pretty much nothing.
One could criticize Smith Westerns on all these levels for being trite, but perhaps Soft Will is a compelling listen precisely because it fails to communicate an experience that is relatable. For me, the album’s stubborn insistence on mourning something that it never really grasped in the first place makes more complex what would otherwise be a boring affair.
The sterile malaise that settles over on repeated listens to Soft Will becomes more interesting when juxtaposed with Omori’s lyrics, which communicate more than anything a feeling of disappointment and disillusionment. The singer’s lackadaisical coo adds a level of ambiguity to this contradiction in the record — even when his lyrics make statements that are truly poignant, Omori sounds too caught up in his own copacetic daydreaming to really give a shit. When this contradiction pays off, the cynicism in the lyrics makes the sonic melodrama feel all the more crushing — like Sisyphus forever muscling a boulder up a hill, Smith Westerns have no choice but to keep on emoting despite being aware of their own ultimate banality.
This type of self-effacement occasionally replaces the more bubblegum vibes that the band radiated on Dye It Blonde, such as on well-liked single “Weekend”: “Weekends are never fun/ Unless you’re around here too.” Filtered through Omori’s unobtrusive vocals, however, these moments of cruel irony never really break through the hypnotic chug of the sound and are usually subsumed into the easygoing atmosphere. Sometimes the results of this tension are prescient and compelling, highlighting the painful splintering of self, typical of the millennial twenty-something’s relentlessly self-aware existence; but taken as a whole, Soft Will is a tiresome thing to endure, even at just under 40 minutes long.
The far-and-away standout track on Soft Will is “Idol,” a dreampoppy synth-laden paean to lost idols (surprise!) that finds Omori addressing an enigmatic former hero (“Saved your picture/ Kept it for months”). Over Smith Westerns’ hugest, most cinematic chorus to date, Omori voices a plea to the unnamed character that is simultaneously earnest and cynical: “Tell me/ Tell me/ Tell me the answer/ But I’m unsure/ Everyday’s a blessing/ Everyday’s a hangover.” It’s clear that Omori still wants to believe in whatever it is that used to inspire childlike awe in him, but by the singalong coda, he’s already decided that it’s not really worth the effort: “So they said it was a joke/ And there’s no one else to believe in.”
Maybe there’s a real story, an actual person behind the lyrics to “Idol,” but in a sonic context that epitomizes Smith Westerns’ unavoidable paradox, their irreconcilable schism between the individualistic earnestness of their 1970s heroes and the millennial compulsion to conform to and reproduce an infinitely escalating aestheticism that is aloof, uncaring, and cool by virtue of total meaninglessness, it occurs to the listener that perhaps the fallen idol being eulogized here isn’t a person at all, but an imaginary rock ‘n’ roll transcendent that has finally revealed itself as illusory to Omori and his band.
Smith Westerns spent a lot of their adolescence figuring out how to cultivate a sensation of weightless effervescence, how to perpetuate and beautify the myth of eternal youth — they produced a sound that is the aural equivalent to the lifestyle advertised to us by Urban Outfitters and American Apparel, where the most significant moments in our lives are things that have never actually happened to us.
Soft Will, then, is a particularly 21st-century sense of powerlessness, a surrender to stasis not unlike the feeling of being emotionally devastated in an airport terminal: something urgent and terrifying is lurking just beneath the surface, but for the time being, all you can do is drift through the standard procedures you’ve learned to follow and try not to draw attention to yourself. You feel an absence of desire that is not the product of fulfillment, but of the realization that your desires are maybe not your own to begin with. Your will is not weak; it has merely been softened by a blurry and indistinct vision of an inexplicably sad world.