It must become increasingly difficult for bands like Smith Westerns to maintain the façade of youth that made them stand out all those years ago. Fans seemingly come to expect younger groups to remain in a perpetual state of adolescence throughout their career, yet it always comes across as rather desperate for acts in their twenties to sing about teenage problems, which is perhaps why some bands stay on the cusp of adulthood throughout their career. Vampire Weekend arguably broke the mould earlier this year with the seminal ‘Modern Vampires of the City’, which saw them depart from their collegiate trappings into more mature territories, a quality that has been continued by Smith Westerns on their long awaited third release.
As Max Kakacek and Cullen and Cameron Omori approach their mid-twenties, the adolescent burdens that founded their earlier work couldn’t seem further away, and although they’re not exactly talking about mortgages and cash ISA’s in their adult years, ‘Soft Will’ is their most conscious, incisive material to date.
Everything is undeniably crisper from the offset, a far cry from the trio’s garage rock, lo-fi beginnings, and builds upon the sumptuous instrumentation and catchy hooks that were found in 2011’s ‘Dye It Blonde’, taking it to a grander, more clean cut territory. The insouciant optimism that we have come to expect is still in full force, though perhaps more in the instrumentation than Cullen Omori’s wordsmithery. Opener ‘3am Spiritual’ plays dreamy synths against brooding lyrical content (delivered in a confusingly cheerful manner), as the floppy haired frontman recites lines like “Please keep close to me, I don’t wanna let you off my heart, But it happened all along and you don’t look like it used to be”.
This new mature insight travels throughout ‘Soft Will’, and its juxtaposition to Smith Westerns’ summer aesthetic offers a refreshing, previously unseen insight into the Chi-town trio. Despite lyrical developments, it becomes clear that influences have remained constant, as tracks like ‘Idol’ and ‘Best Friends’ bleed 1970’s rock grandiosity, harking back to childhood inspirations like T-Rex and Bowie with elaborate guitar solos, yet still keeping that reverb tinged throwback slacker sound Westerns’ have developed in the last four years.
There are however moments on introspection to be found amongst the splendour, as ‘XXIII’ floats in the more subdued wings of the psychedelic spectrum, whilst penultimate track ‘Cheer Up’ sounds remarkably like the song from the ‘enchantment under the sea dance’ scene of Back To The Future (albeit without Michael J Fox fucking up the guitar) before building into a climax that screams for a drunken festival singalong.
Lead single ‘Varsity’ perhaps best embodies Smith Western’s development over the last four years, as swooning strings accompany the timeless dreamy melodies that have made them one of the finest summer bands of the moment, and will continue to do so for years to come.
There’s no denying the trio have come a long way since their visceral beginnings, and ‘Soft Will’ is a worthy progression from ‘Dye It Blonde’ in terms of production and lyrical content. However, one cant help but feel that Smith Western’s have almost imprisoned themselves in terms of ideas, and fail to change up their (albeit new) formula throughout the record, which unfortunately leaves them in somewhat monotonous territories after the first listen. Nevertheless, this album should be seen more as a stepping stone in Smith Western’s career, and the work that ultimately allowed them to transcend from the overbearing shadow of their youth into a band with longevity.