ALBUM RATING: 3.5/5
Sycamore Smith may be one of the strangest folk singers to turn up in the 21st Century. Influenced by the macabre and Woody Guthrie, his songs remain folky with a medieval, gothic quality to them. Smith is able to counter-balance these gross and vivid stories of east-London prostitutes, necrophiliac nurses, and a drunk cupid with a comedic tinge and his soulful strumming on his beat-up acoustic guitar. He also imagines unique worlds with his ever-expanding vocabulary, creating down-right grotesque, strange, and beautiful imagery in all of his songs.
His newest release, Grosspapa is definitely his most “commercial” to date. His only other legitimate release was 2011’s Redux, a collection of basically every song he’d written to that point under different names as well as with his old band.
But luckily for us, Grosspapa actually feels like a real album. It retains the weirdness and comedic feel that his previous release encapsulated so well, but this time it feels as though he has finally come to terms with writing songs just to write songs.
Grosspapa begins its life with a track entitled “The Billions”. New to a Sycamore Smith recording, the album’s debut makes use of some synths that are tastily placed throughout it. The album is complimented with some great use of individual instruments to add to his acoustic guitar (which aptly wears a pair of devil horns when he plays live). The bass keys from an old piano on “Hop in the Vat”, a bit of slide guitar on “Oh You”, synths on “The Billions” and “The Divider”, and many other instrumental flourishes throughout allow for a more atmospheric album instead of just one man with a guitar.
The production value has definitely been upped for this release but one thing that is sorely missing is his trademark kazoo. Not once does it make an appearance, most likely because other instruments have filled in for it, but still, it added such a DIY/lo-fi element to the music that was just as kitschy as it was unique. His cover of Streetlight Manifesto’s “A Better Place, A Better Time” includes one of the best recorded kazoo solos of all time in this writer’s opinion.
His 2014 cover of Streetlight Manifesto’s “A Better Place, A Better Time” includes one of the best-recorded kazoo solos of all time in this writer’s opinion.
Another criticism per se is that some of the tracks reek of being fillers. None carry that “Sycamore Smith” charm, nor do they really help to enhance any kind of narrative or bring something unique to the album. “The Billions” and “Aces & Eights” particularly stick out to me as being dull and forgettable. However, with this being said, Smith shows that not everything has to be about the macabre. He ends the album with a purely acoustic tune, “The Lonely Peace”. It seems to have a very subtle political feel to it (“I can’t fight, wrong or right, we’re standing on either side of a tall brick wall”) and for the first time, shows that Smith may just be observing the world around him instead of trying to conjure up sick, weird worlds from the past. Additionally, “The Divider” is a great little folk-space tune that draws inspiration from one of Queen’s early works, “39”.
The most outstanding track on the record is a live-standard of Smith’s that he’s played for years, intriguingly titled “Congratulations, You Survived Your Suicide”. I personally have seen him play this song live twice and both times it captivated the audience in ways few opening acts’ songs ever do. There’s something about the lyrics, how they talk about such a taboo subject in a way that is almost joyous. If it weren’t for the subject matter I could see this being sung on church retreats around a campfire with an acoustic guitar. It’s an incredibly simple and beautiful song who’s message carries weight today in a world of mental health stigma and suicide epidemics.
Overall the album is a strong entry by Smith who has been buoyed recently from his collaboration album with Toh Kay as well as touring heavily and supporting many big name acts in the scene. His live shows are really quite something as he vividly describes what each song is about before playing it and is incredibly engaged with the crowd. And of course, the kazoo solos are of course always a treat.
Though the live energy hasn’t quite translated into his new record, Smith has done a great job in crafting his songwriting skills and creating an album that has the potential to be a tremendous stepping stone in his solo music career.