Traditionally, bands aren’t really supposed to hit rock ’n’ roll puberty until they approach their 30s. And you’re definitely not supposed to sound as primed and polished as Smith Westerns do on Soft Will — their third studio album — when you’re barely into your 20s.
Admittedly, the act’s youth and the notion of trad-rock revivalism are old hat by now, but there’s a reason they’re discussed with such regularity. The trio became the worthiest successors to T. Rex or Roxy Music in decades overnight, and did so with an uncommon air of confidence.
In 2010, its self-titled debut was a rough-around-the-edges foray into guitar-heavy glam — an enjoyable listen, but one that spoke more to the group’s unrealized potential than anything particularly momentous. Basically, it sounded as if the band were in high school ... which it was.
Smith Westerns’ 2011 sophomore effort, Dye It Blonde, sounded like an entirely different outfit, both in sound and composition. The glitz and glam were dialed up a few notches, and every guitar stab, every synth pad hit you square in the gut. With its sweeping choruses and instantly memorable melodies, Cullen Omori’s songwriting invigorated new life into the band, taking form as one of the genre’s best records of the last several years.
Released yesterday, Soft Will retains the bigness of its predecessor, but does so with subtlety and caution. Production-wise, the album shimmers and shines even more than Blonde, and the melodies are often just as memorable. Yet the disc finds the trio in a far less boisterous state — almost decelerating in a way — as the unruly acquiesces to the pristine. It’s the outfit’s prettiest album by a long shot, and those who prefer their Smith Westerns with that extra shot of espresso might experience withdrawals.
Even a mid-tempo jangler like “Glossed” — a song so shiny, it’ll leave you bright red — feels surprisingly languid. “XXIII,” meanwhile, doesn’t even try to disguise itself as anything but a mid-’70s Pink Floyd tribute. While these songs are highly enjoyable when absorbed individually, 39 minutes of glaze can be more than some might bargain for.
Fortunately, anthemic sing-alongs like “3am Spiritual” and the blissful “Best Friend” inject Soft Will with reverb-drenched, arena-sized choruses. “Varsity” — the clear highlight and one of 2013’s finest tracks — is an immaculately constructed serving of pop effervescence, concluding the album on the highest of high notes.
Yet, while these are 10 well-written and skillfully executed songs, you almost wish the band had taken more time to mature, especially given the trajectory it took off with just a few short years ago. Not because that’s the path the guys were supposed to follow, but because they are likely to lose their vigor and enthusiasm as they age — elements that made them so great in the first place.
Soft Will is certainly an enjoyable listen, but you have to wonder if Smith Westerns came full circle a few albums too soon. —Zach Hale