Words: James Frostick
Melbourne/Naarm guitarist and songwriter Chris Smith is today announcing his fourth album Second Hand Smoke, his first full-length release since 2007’s Bad Orchestra. Lead single ‘Animal’ is a downcast self reckoning – a melancholy country-blues ballad about picking the stitching of the soul and plucking at the stuffing inside.
How much can an animal change its base nature? Can a leopard change its spots? Is what separates us from animals the ability to reckon with consequence? How often do folks indulge in their own impulses (the moments when we dip into the subconscious impulses we never quite shake, only tame) without forethought? How do they avoid making the same mistakes over and over again? Fighting against nature or making peace with it seems to be the struggle at the core of ‘Animal’, the new track from Chris Smith. The songwriter – who first emerged in the 90s as a member of groups such as The Golden Lifestyle Band and Substatic before launching a successful solo career before the start of the 2000s – has returned after an extended hiatus to present Second Hand Smoke, a collection of tracks written and recorded in the period after 2007’s Bad Orchestra. Such a stretch of time has clearly offered many opportunities for introspection – Second Hand Smoke is saturated in contemplative beauty and contains humble revelations unearthed in moments of quiet, and truths made evident with the benefit of hindsight.
‘Animal’ is, perhaps, the most unflinching moment on the album, which makes the choice to position it as lead single indicative of Chris’ intent. Too many years have passed for Chris to be coy with his music – he is swinging for the fences here, even though the sonics are languorous and sedate. Despite a resume that encompasses numbers drone and ambient guitar masterworks, on ‘Animal’ Chris is trodding the familiar path of pensive country blues – blues in style and blue in mood. The track’s core elements include heavy-hearted harmonica, a solitary acoustic strum (the echoes of which are vaguely reminiscent of Jason Molina on his lonesome) and a tear-jerking slide-guitar whine that streaks by like the headlights of cars passing at night (that’s not to mention the field recordings of distant traffic noise that close the track). All the pieces together create a sense of dejected loneliness. Notes hang and linger, filling the silence like smoke – gradually diminishing but the scent never fully departs. The final piece of the puzzle is, of course, Chris’ vocals – time worn and frayed, but largely undiminished. ‘Animal’ strikes me as a song about backwards glances, about facing the spectres of past mistakes and reckoning with shortcomings. There’s a sense of trying to outrun inevitability, to eschew impulse and avoid the pitfalls you know lie at your feet, lest you tumble into them once more. Do we ever learn? Chris sings about new beginnings, or at least putting a match to the painful parts of his past (“All the lonely days, all the sleepless nights / burn them all and all and hope that most things turn out right“), torching the evidence of his failures and praying he can avoid making the same mistakes again and again. Sometimes the simplest lessons are hardest to learn. Perhaps fucking up is just part of our nature.
Listen to ‘Animal’ here:
Second Hand Smoke will be released digitally and on CD and vinyl via It Records on September 25, 2020. Click here to pre-order a copy. Chris Smith’s back catalogue has also been uploaded to Bandcamp – you can dive in below.