Bull By the Horns
Over the course of 15 albums and nearly four decades of making quality music, Darden Smith still defies expectations and lifts spirits with his singing and songwriting. Western Skies is his newest effort, and it’s packed with songs that are filled to the brim with Smith’s articulate musings on relationships, aging and understanding a world wracked with strife.
Smith’s brand of soft-spoken folk and country always seemed at odds even in a scene as eclectic as Austin. He wasn’t as weird as Lyle Lovett nor as populist as Robert Earl Keen. Smith always looked like a professor, and his music has as much in common with Cat Stevens and James Taylor as it does with Willie Nelson.
Opening with “Miles Between,” a mid-tempo, piano-based number, Smith sings, “Lately, I’ve been wishing that the world was flat.” It’s a sad song about wanting to get away from everything, including life. Smith’s singing is as good as it’s ever been, and his music is sharper and less obsessed with the traditions of classic country. Western Skies sounds like a Joe Henry album recorded in Austin. Like Henry, Smith’s observations are sharp, poignant and affecting.
“There ain’t nothing funny about getting older / My soul aches, my body feels the strain,” Smith sings on “Running Out of Time.” The ruminations on death permeate the entire album, and Smith’s reliance on piano over guitar adds a gospel feel to the proceedings. The title track is actually the most conventional track on the album. It sounds like it could have been on Smith’s 1990 breakthrough album Trouble No More.
The album’s best cut may well be “Perfect for a Little While,” where Smith’s lyrics, piano playing and singing recalls the best of Randy Newman. “Easy days and endless nights,” Smith intones as his piano playing ebbs and flows like a man looking through black-and-white pictures of his halcyon days and wondering what went wrong.
Western Skies is a dark collection of songs that isn’t beholden to any major label or convenient genre description. The pleasures in this album are immense, as if Smith is releasing demons long held in his craw: the lack of mainstream acceptance, the trivialization of his art, the meaning of life as an artist. Heady stuff indeed, but stuff of transcendence and emotional resiliency that bears repeated listening.