A musical chameleon, Sonny Smith remains distinct in each of his guises, merely changing colors while retaining his unique shape.
To say that Smith, a man who—among other musical adventures—wrote and recorded songs for 100 bands he conjured from the depths of his weird mind, has thus far swung from irreverent garage-pop to fractured country-western is to oversimplify the restless eclecticism in his records.
Perhaps, at least with his last two records, it’s best to consider Smith’s stylistic shifts less as whims and more as fitting vehicles for the subject matter of his songwriting. Longtime Companion set the palette of country-rock beside Smith’s easel for a work that chronicled his breakup, the long somber brushstrokes making for a comparatively traditional record.
Less expected, but no less fitting, is the spacey blend he creates for an album that ponders life and death, and what connection might be possible between the two. Antenna to the Afterworld is bouncy, synthy, funky, a groove-rock album that nods a bit toward, if anybody, Beck, a fellow peddler of musical variety. It’s a little new-wave, a little psychedelic, a little ethereal and more than a little out there as Smith tackles mortality from an other-worldly angle, using the great wide universe as a stand-in for the afterworld.
Written after the murder of a close friend, opening track and first single “Dark Corners” has a bit of a Kurt Vile vibe underneath its cosmic energy. “I can’t wait to find / My little place in your weird world,” sings Smith from the perspective of some space being. After all, is a transmission from space any different than one from beyond the grave?
“Palmreader” chugs along, propelled by a relentlessly echoing power-pop riff as Smith sings about visiting a psychic that brought him into contact with another deceased friend. Smith sets himself up as difficult to read, with an unexplained scar on his hand, a loveline that’s hard to see and a fucked-up lifeline that seems “split into two.” But the contact is apparently made, and if it’s possible, what does that say for death? Where exactly is that line, Smith wonders, a sudden fearlessness and defiance shading his tone.
There’s no end of offbeat fun on Antenna: “Path of Orbit” updates the country-shuffle loneliness of Companion, set for new coordinates; “Void” sounds like the Modern Loves going where they don’t need roads, and “Earth Girl” tunes into some interstellar surf-rock frequency.
“Green Blood,” the album’s second single, is its most entertaining song with its spoken-word back-and-forth that finds Smith responding to an interrogation about falling in weird love with a strange being on an unknown planet. Sad inside, his spaceling love is nonetheless amazing, beautiful and fun, but married to “some cyborg type.” The lovers run off, barely escaping the husband, but the affair is doomed by their insurmountable differences.
As the album closer, “Green Blood” encapsulates what’s so compelling about Antenna. Lyrically, it’s a sci-fi story that’s still immediately relatable, while musically, all that cosmic adornment falls on top of a head-nodding beat and catchy riffs.
Antenna to the Afterworld is both a more imaginative album than its predecessor and a more fully realized vision. Smith gives a bigger slice of the action to his previously well-constrained band, a move that rewards both the musicians and Smith’s expansive aims. Never short of things to say, Smith has written his own sort of space opera, with humor and grace, about searching for what’s real in this world as well as the next.