The first thing you’ll notice about Darwin Deez is the mop-topped dude wearing a circlet on its cover. That’s the fun-loving pop outfit’s singer and songwriter, Darwin Smith, who dropped out of Wesleyan University in Middletown, CT, and moved to New York City to battle depression and play music. After playing in a handful of bands and at open mic nights around the city, Smith took to his house to write and record an album. He ended up with his new, sort-of-self-titled band’s debut, Darwin Deez, out in the U.K. last year and finally out in physical form in the U.S. this week.


Bouncy opener “Constellations” sets the tone for a record of good-natured, guitar-driven pop music, with plenty of tambourines and hand claps to go around. Smith begins the song by crooning, “Twinkle twinkle, little star/How I wonder what you are,” a dauntlessly clownish gesture. “DNA” and “Radar Detector,” two of the album’s other singles, pick up on this same mien, with playful lyrics and fully strummed guitar chords that smack of Phoenix and Minus The Bear.


But beneath the record’s carefree temperament are some darker undertones. Smith is a ham, to be sure, but listen past the surface and you’ll hear him grappling with themes of isolation, frustration and heartbreak. Most poignant is “Deep Sea Divers,” whose chorus finds Smith singing “You’re bringing me down,” alongside some of the album’s best guitar work. Darwin Deez creates a portrait of a guy trying to stay positive in the face of some heavy stuff—heavy stuff that’s always threatening to crash the party he’s trying to throw.


Darwin Deez is getting a lot of attention these days, but it’s not the first time one of Smith’s projects has been in the news. Smith plays guitar in Brooklyn band the Creaky Boards, which made waves a few years back when its singer alleged that Coldplay had stolen one of his songs and made it into the smash hit “Viva La Vida.” Three years later, the songs from Darwin Deez may not get pilfered by a platinum-selling stadium band, but they’re good enough to earn Smith some recognition for his own work.