Smith Westerns have always understood the drama of a gesture. When I first saw the band open for the late Jay Reatard in Chicago, they were mostly distinguishable because of the novelty of their age. Standing on stage, blasting through T. Rex-inspired garage pop larks about yearning for girls, they couldn’t help but look like the teenagers they were, the black marker X’s shining in the soft light off their hands, indicating that even though the boozy crowd was cheering for them, they were still gonna be slamming sodas after the show. They looked and sounded young, but there’s one detail that always stood out to me: the guitarist was sporting a Deep Purple t-shirt. Maybe it was the only clean shirt he had; maybe he picked it out weeks before the show; doesn’t matter. It sent a message: Feel free to underestimate us but we’re students of this shit.
Not that simply owning a Deep Purple t-shirt makes you some ’70s rock encyclopedia, but the careful evolution of Smith Westerns has revealed the band to be canny and fleet-fingered archivists of rock’s swoonier, theatrical side. Despite its crunching, hissing charm, the group’s debut didn’t display any great ambition, though it did contain enough sweet-tempered singles and snotty kiss-offs to make it worth coming back to. It was a quick and pleasant record, hard to dislike but also difficult to defend against charges of amateruism. The group’s second album, the swirling and striking Dye It Blonde, was a step towards maturity, bringing the glam rock touches into focus, toning back the bratty-ness of the vocal delivery and cleaning up the production. It wasn’t perfect but it did what sophomore albums are supposed to do: Fulfill the promise of the debut.
The band’s third album, Soft Will, is similar to Dye It Blonde in conception, but different in execution. Where there was something defiant about Blonde, Will is far more reflective and searching, casting glances towards the stars where the previous record was always eyeing someone across the room. These are songs of worship tinged with doubt. “It’s easier to think you’re dumb like you were,” sings Cullen Omori on the album’s opening track “3am Spiritual.” perhaps articulating the frustration of occasionally being cast as Chicago’s garage rock enfant terrible. As always, the concerns here are mostly matters of the heart—feeling alone, loving a friend, counting the passing days—but Omori’s not afraid to cut these images with the occasional existential head-scratcher. “Tell me, tell me the answer,” he pleads on “Idol,” a soaring song of admiration built on a twinkling stomp of a riff. He doesn’t find any answers along the way, but there’s a wilting beauty to his search.
In addition to sharpening the lyrical content, Soft Will has some of the group’s complex and multifaceted bits of rock assemblage. There’s a confidence and control to the playing on this album, particularly the way they layer the spacey, buzzing synths with Max Kakacek’s guitars on tracks like “Glossed” and “Varsity.” Only occasionally do they let the songs turn to mush, like on the uninspired “Fool Proof,” which staggers through a few orchestral moves and guitar solos without ever really finding its footing. The band is at its best when it’s pushing against the glam template they’ve already established, trying out the tortured poet schtick on the bedridden “White Oath” or sporting stoned Buddy Holly grins on the psych-tinged ’50s sock-hop cut “Cheer Up.” It’s all comfort food, but the record is at its most invigorating when Omori sounds uncomfortable.
That sense of exploration reaches its apex on the instrumental “XXIII,” which kicks off with a delicate piano part and a weeping guitar that wouldn’t sound totally out of place coming from Derek And The Dominos or even Pink Floyd. The song eventually segues into a swelling Starlight Express section that’s equal parts majestic and melancholy. At 4:30 it’s the longest track on the album, but it’s effective enough to make you wish the band would genuinely commit to exploring its proggy, space-rock side. Bring on the 10-minute epics. Bring on the spoken-word interludes. Bring on the convoluted mythology. There’s gotta be a Yes t-shirt in that closet somewhere.