by David Haynes (@shooshlord)
Graham Smith is not only the strongest man alive, but he’s also one of the strangest songwriters alive. A home recording hero, Smith has been crafting catchy, oddball melodies under the moniker Kleenex Girl Wonder for over 20 years now. On his newest offering, White Lacuna, Smith takes his witty yet heartfelt songwriting formula and has crafted something fresh and exciting.
Opener “The History of Ice” is a perfect example of what Smith does best. It’s a song seemingly about our inability to connect and understand each other, which is a truly devastating concept to unpack. Yet, Smith does it with ease and somehow makes it hilarious. He says, “It seems I wanna believe / I guess even a Wilhelm scream can read like a prophecy.” We all want human connection, and we’re willing to look for it in the smallest details. I have never heard a better description of the basic human condition than these two lines. The music surrounding these lines is just as extraordinary. Jangly chords, fuzzy leads, and a groovy ride cymbal drumbeat all help make this song absolutely perfect. It’s an undeniable power pop gem.
Smith’s singing voice is also unique in the world of indie rock. An Illinois native now living in New York, Smith’s voice has the twang of a country-Western singer with the matter-of-factness of a Northeastern resident. There’s not a song that illustrates this better than “Sweet Person.” The track comes in hot, with heavy guitars and crashing cymbals. It maintains momentum throughout, though occasionally mellowing out for the verses. The lyrics are about heartbreak and potentially dating someone who may not be the best for you. Near the end of the song, Smith sings, “No one wants to be alone when the world ends / so we take a gamble on a sweet person.” Though on one hand that thought is relatively sad, there’s also hope in those lines as well. The gamble could pay off.
“Hope All Is Lost” is one of the longer tracks on the record. It’s more experimental than the two previous tracks, but it lacks none of the potency in songwriting and melody. Smith has added a drum machine and some synth pads to build a larger sonic palette. Lyrically, this song reads like an anthem for hopelessness. Smith offers lines like, “There’s always the road less traveled / But you know what happens to poor unfortunate souls / who wander the forests alone.” While the tone is melancholy and a little bit eerie, the catchy melody and production make it seem like in the end everything will work out alright. It’s a mood that writers like John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats has been championing for a number of years as well. The songs on White Lacuna are perfect examples of how someone can sing about apathy and ruin without making listeners feel utterly bummed out.
“Lake Is Fine” offers us more of Smith’s off-kilter power pop. Though every song is filled to the brim with hummable melodies, “Lake Is Fine” might just be the catchiest song on White Lacuna. “White Witch” continues the folksy-experimentation started in “Hope All Is Lost.” Towards the end of the song, Smith says, “Our best-laid plans are best forgotten / And since we can't do much to stop this avalanche / to hell with caution / let's just dance like everyone's watching / And love like we've only ever been hurt.” It’s a charming, if somewhat depressing, take on the “carpe diem” concept, and it sounds refreshing and hopeful here.
“Emerita” and “Angelina” show the softer side of Smith’s songwriting. The songs are built around simple acoustic chord progressions. Smith adds in percussion and bizarre blips and boops from synthesizers. “Angelina” also features some guitar leads that are among the best on the record. “Judas Beach” is completely keyboard/synthesizer based, with barely any audible guitar. These three tracks almost sound reminiscent of side B of Abbey Road. Not that these songs run together, but there is this idea that side B is a little bit zanier than side A. And, I’m grateful to Smith for keeping that rock and roll tradition alive.
I’m not one for making interpretations of a songwriter’s work, but “Worry The Well” might be one of the most interesting songs written about social media without mentioning any specifics. Smith sings, “The future's invisible, the past is impossible to read / So I guess all it needs is the present / And you're like a mythical creature projected on a screen / If you want to complete the impression, you need to break free.” It’s a sentiment that most of us can relate to in 2018 (and now 2019). We hate the caricatures of ourselves that we see on sites like Facebook and Instagram, and I encounter more and more people who are deciding to take breaks or remove themselves from social media entirely. “Worry The Well” doesn’t have to be about social media, and for all I know it truly may not be. But, I can’t help but think that this is perhaps one of the best songs I have heard about the dangers of social media.
And finally, “The Wet Wizard” is the shortest song on the record, but it is the perfect ending to the record. It’s nearly reminiscent of “Zombie Zoo” at the end of Petty’s Full Moon Fever. After a number of hard-hitting tracks, “The Wet Wizard” is a fun, non-sensical breath of fresh air. The song ends abruptly after Smith sings, “The moral is to take nothing sweeter than a rose / Almost any other name / And the only that’s frozen in the story is the frame.” It’s the final piece to the puzzle of this record. While everything feels hopeless and massive, it’s important to remember the simple things in life.
This record somehow escaped my 2018 list, but I think it’s one of the best, catchiest, and smartest indie rock records of the past year. Smith is able to wrestle with loneliness in a humorous tone that sets him apart from other modern songwriters. If you’ve never listened to any of Smith’s work, this would be an excellent introduction. After you listen through White Lacuna, you’ll be happy that Smith has made so many excellent records.