Steven R. Smith is one of the most fascinating guitarists and writers this country has. Along with talents like Glenn Jones, Jack Rose, and Ben Chasny, he has composed a remarkable and singular body of work grounded in the history and spirit of America (guts and all). After nearly 15 years and well over 30 albums Smith has composed one of his best records yet, one that approaches the greatness of Tableland. Economical and sharply focused, Cities plays out like the soundtrack to humanity’s slow and sad funeral.
I don’t mean to suggest that Smith and Jones or Smith and Chasny have all that much in common musically, but they all produce distinctly American sounding music. What they write is married variously to folk and country traditions, the myth of the wild west, or American nature and mysticism. On Cities Smith focuses squarely on nature and myth, with an eye towards the reclamation of land and beauty lost. Beginning with “Cities in Decline,” Steven paints a portrait of man as criminal and of nature as judge, jury, and executioner. A shifting drone made from a frayed violin sets the tone for the entire album and for the appearance of a descending guitar melody that imitates the opening song’s title. With Smith we descend into a world set ablaze: skyline’s burn in the distance, cities become unsafe, and the unsympathetic stillness of the wild offers itself as the only shelter from mankind’s dread fate. Of course, it turns out to be a graveyard itself. Smith’s style is so sharp and perfectly honed that vivid images jump out of the music and offer themselves instead of laying in wait for an adventurous listener. On Cities the power of impressionism is utilized to its fullest. Bright and clear melodies populate the record, but they are used to contrast the vast swathes of tonal color and smears of texture that make up most of the record. Where singable melodies and familiar song structures emerge, they do so quite strongly and with a great deal of emotional power. “Line to Line, Pole to Pole” is one such instance. The song lasts but a minute, but in that time Smith splits open his record and reveals a fragile beauty full of wonder, remorse, and fractured memory.
As it turns out, much of the album sounds like an imperfectly recalled memory. There are spots on the record where Smith’s playing reaches for some unseen apex, but falls short and breaks down. It’s as if his fingers can’t quite remember what to do or as though they’ve become weak. On “The City Gate” a violin leads the action, but its typically brilliant tenor is rendered rough and feeble, like it would sound if a child were playing the melody but still learning how to draw the bow across the strings. Misremembered or misplayed phrases appear all over the record, but in a deliberate fashion. In other places, instruments sound distant and uncertain, as though the narrative being told is full of “maybes” and “I believes.” And this is what I mean by Smith’s playing being especially impressionistic: he’s not worried about songs so much as he is about painting a picture or describing a scene. “The Road” is an example of him combining both approaches in the same song. A guitar with nylon strings walks over a simple organ melody and the crackling glimmer of Smith’s electric accompaniments. The arrangement imitates the cadence of someone walking or stumbling down a path with a scorched and blistered plain providing the sad setting for this almost pathetic scene. The title and tone recall Cormac McCarthy’s novel of the same name and I have to assume Smith is referencing it, even if unconsciously. It would make the perfect soundtrack to that destitute story.
Cities is both painful and pleasant, much in the same way as McCarthy’s book. Small victories are won throughout the album, especially where simple beauty and awe burst through all the destruction and distortion. “All is One, One is None, None” closes the album on this note, where a kind of bittersweet reverence is intimated. A half-yelled, half-sung chorus of wordless notes is set beneath a buzzing wave of guitar noise and glinting harmony. As the song fades to nothing, a resigned quietude takes over and the bleak landscapes of Smith’s mind appear to silence the possibility of saying anything more. There’s no struggle and no pain in the music, just a quiet breath and a small feeling, like standing in the shadow of the world.