December 16th, 2008 5:06pm
The Fabulous Flameout and Remarkable Return of Graham Smith
At the time of Ponyoak‘s release, Graham Smith (aka Kleenex Girl Wonder) was known as much for his ego as for his songwriting. Smith’s 1999 masterpiece famously listed only one name in every section of its credits, including the “thank you”s. (Hint: the initials are G. S.). Smith was, and is, often referred to as “prodigious,” and sure enough, there are songs on Ponyoak that seem stretched out for the sole purpose of cramming in one more verse worth of improbably clever lyrics.
Still, two things set Smith apart from the undifferentiated throngs of self-absorbed singer-songwriters. First: he actually has the talent to back it all up. Ponyoak demonstrates a stunning mastery of pop music’s gestural power. For all of its excesses, a shockingly high percentage of the record hits just the way this kind of music should — instantly familiar emotionally, effortless and propulsive formally. Second: rather than sublimating his ego into the usual passive-aggressive stylistic tics, Smith puts it right out there, for you to take or leave as you will. In a weird way, it’s actually a lot less obnoxious than some guy strumming an acoustic guitar and asking you to believe that everyone else has done him wrong.
Some artists who are acutely aware of their own talent see it as a serious and sacred charge, something that must be continually challenged and developed in the name of creating something that will outlast and transcend the artist him/herself. Evidently, Smith does not feel that way. As a symptom of hubris, irreverence or (more likely) a combination of both, he embarked upon a bewildering flameout after Ponyoak, alienating a good deal of his fanbase (myself included) by releasing bloated and half-baked concept albums and hip-hop sketches. I wanted another Robert Pollard, I got another MC Paul Barman. Time to move on, so it goes, better to burn out, etc.
I had all but forgotten about Smith until Ned cited the new “Graham Smith & KGW” album as one of his favorites of the year. The new album, which is available for free download at Smith’s website, is characteristically hefty, dense and presumptuous — do we really need both “demo” and “album” versions of songs that consist, in both cases, of sparsely recorded acoustic guitar and vocals? — but it has quickly grown to be one of my favorite releases of the year as well.
For all of its excess, Yes Boss has an impressive share of sharp and concise songs. The album’s centerpiece, featured once on each of its two discs, is “I Will Own U,” a song whose title dismissively Prince-ifies a deeply ugly sentiment. Smith’s lyrical precision is still in full effect, but he seems to have grown much more introspective, much more aware of his own capacity to undermine himself and others via his cleverness and (as always seems to accompany his brand of egotism) crippling insecurity. My favorite verse goes:
“I’ve got a way with words
But then, that shouldn’t surprise you
What, you’ve never been lied to?
This is mankind’s oldest industry
And now you’re a part of history”
The line is masterful in word choice, sentiment, and cadence. The way that Smith delivers a pointed, rhetorical question, the double-meaning of “part of history” — it’s a song rife with self-critical emotional intelligence (one of many reasons I’m so gonzo for the Capstan Shafts as well). Ponyoak is a smart record, for sure, but it’s also a self-consciously self-aggrandizing pop experiment. It’s both emboldened and limited by a youthful sense of invincibility — not a bad thing by any means, just a logical temporal/contextual difference.
Smith has succeeded in making a difficult transition that I’ve been noticing a bit in my own songwriting as well. On Ponyoak, sexuality is still largely hypothetical; relationships play out as cultural archetypes, awkward crushes are revealed in coded language — the album is born of, and largely enjoyed through “what I feel is like a pop song” identification. On Yes Boss, Smith finds himself smack in the middle of grown-up relationships, where people knowingly transgress and manipulate these archetypes, do things that they know are wrong, have bad sex, and hurt each other for no apparent reason.
For all the metaphysical grandiosity of today’s indie rock, I still find this slyly intelligent, wordy and emotionally incisive approach to be the most compelling and personally meaningful. I am very pleased to be reacquainted with one of its most talented practitioners.