Listening to the last three Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith solo full-lengths is like watching time-lapse footage of vibrant flowers blooming.
Euclid, released in 2015, was the Washington state synthesist’s breakthrough, on which she explored the nexus of gauzy pop and burbling electronic music in a way that felt wide-eyed and new. She upped the ante on 2016’s EARS, rounding out her sound and adding more breathy vocals to further humanize her bleeps and bloops. As lovely and forward-looking as Euclid was (and still is), the abundant richness of EARS made it sound 2D. Euclid exists on a musical plane; EARS feels reach-out-and-touchable.
By comparison, a trip through Smith’s new album, The Kid, is like being dropped into the middle of a bizarrely beautiful sound-world and enveloped by the warmth and wonder of one woman’s relationship with a machine named Buchla. It is an immersive experience worthy of slow wandering.
Quasi-famously, Smith left her home on Orcas Island to attend the prestigious Berklee College of Music, then shuttered her folk band after discovering and becoming enamored with the Buchla 100, an early synthesizer developed by electronic music pioneer Don Buchla. Experimenting with the instrument’s array of beats, tones and effects, she found her way to a unique sound she has inhabited ever since. Smith is one of a small number of prominent musicians who use a Buchla creation as her primary instrument.
And the way she uses it is thrilling. The Kid begins with “I Am A Thought,” a clutter of gentle hisses, glowing drones and other noises floating around like cuddly space junk. It is only a wordless preamble, however, as Smith fully integrates her voice into the rest of the album. Early on, “An Intention” pairs her lush robot harmonies with a bed of music that seems to rise and fall like it’s wheezing. And “A Kid” collapses into a pit of knocks and sproings before ascending into Smith’s liveliest vocal performance to date.
The Kid continues along this path, splitting the difference between experimental sound collage and addictive, sugary electro-pop, never overstaying its welcome on either side. “In the World” is a digital lullaby for the 23rd century, all squiggles and swoops and Smith blissfully chanting about…something. The album follows along life’s arc—from newborn to self-awareness to adulthood to a peaceful end—but Smith’s words are so often draped in effects, it’s hard to follow along. Not that that matters much, mind you.
Highlights include “In the World, but Not of the World,” with its juxtaposition of clicks, whirs, effervescence and pulsing low end. “To Follow and Lead” is somehow cold-blooded and funky and feathery all at once. And “I Am Curious, I Care” is an orchestral synth-disco-drone jam that changes shape at least three times in the course of four minutes. You don’t see those every day.
That, to put it simply, it what makes Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s music both mesmerizing and magnetic. She has put in the time to master her instrument of choice, and she combines that mastery with top-shelf compositional skills. As a result, she sounds like no one else. We say that about artists a lot, and it sounds great in a review. But rarely is it true. On The Kid, it is. And it’s a beautiful thing to behold.