Supernova is an abandonment of nearly everything that makes Caitlyn Smith a compelling performer.
It’s hard to find a near-consensus of opinion in critical music reviews, especially in country music, where its history and ambiguity in defined sound guarantees no artist will please everyone who calls themselves “country music” fans. But when the only “research” to validate such a claim anyway comes from a collection of positive opinions, one could make the case that all artists are their own brand of “special,” especially in the Internet age where anyone is allowed to have an opinion.
If there’s one artist, though, where that praise felt (and still feels) legitimate, it’s Caitlyn Smith, whose 2018 debut album Starfire excelled off potent tones, writing that, while opting for broad themes, was filled with an intense amount of detail, and a raw, naturally talented performer behind it all. And that’s considering, too, that it came from someone most listeners knew primarily as a songwriter, notably one who penned “This Town Is Killing Me,” a song about the pains and frustrations of trying to make it in Nashville. So now the momentum is picking up – with Smith grappling life as a touring artist and mother, all of which is the inspiration for her newest album, Supernova.
But for as much as I hate to say it, Supernova is a step down in nearly every way for Smith: the production aims to be bigger, but fails to be bolder; the writing isn’t nearly as sharp as before; and while Smith herself is doing a lot of the heavy lifting here, the production usually works against her.
And that may be the easiest starting discussion point for this album, notably the shift in production style from the warm, organic intricacies of Starfire to an overblown push toward mainstream pop, where reverb and other garish synthetic elements completely oversaturate this project. Now, the criticism isn’t the choice of direction; one of Smith’s biggest hits as a writer is from Meghan Trainor and John Legend’s “Like I’m Gonna Lose You” – Smith is just at home in pop music as she is in country, and Starfire had plenty of potent pop moments in “East Side Restaurant” and “House Of Cards.” No, the problem is that Supernova takes everything compelling about Smith’s sound and boils it down to a watered-down, generic mesh of ideas that often works against her.
Granted, it’s not a complete shift in tone – songs like the title track, “Fly Away,” “Midnight In New York City” and “Lonely Together” do have the right space to breathe. But this album mostly feels stuffy, with the piano and guitars often gutted from heavier reverb, even if the melodies and grooves are still fairly potent. And considering these songs are mostly playing to power ballad territory, that seems like an odd fit, more than anything else. “Long Time Coming,” for instance, is an empowerment anthem, yet the odd, murkier tones make it feel more lethargic than celebratory, and that’s a note on the entire album – confusing “lush” and “atmospheric” with “overdone.”And those little instrumental moments just don’t fluctuate like they did on Starfire. Sure, there’s a decent, darker groove driving “Damn You For Breaking My Heart,” but there’s also a good-sounding saxophone buried in the mix that only kinda-sorta adds an ominous potency to the track, at least when it’s noticeable.
And that’s only more evidenced for me when I hear the actual highlights that actually play to Smith’s strengths. For as powerful of a singer as Smith is, she’s most effective when underselling her material, lending a thick, organic warmth to her recordings that cultivates rich tone without overwhelming the audience. The title track sees Smith play to the same vintage pop textures of, say, “East Side Resturant,” where the swell of piano and strings has an absolutely fantastic presence matched against Smith herself. The only sad part is that it’s an isolated moment on this album, though “Lonely Together” does come close to hitting that same emotional high.
Again, too, the problem is in the execution. Even when Smith is leaning into a track with a soaring chorus and even bigger hook, it can work as long as the production actually suits her. And so – surprise, surprise – when there’s a more natural bass groove and firm acoustics driving “Fly Away” and the production stays out of the way, it leads to one of the best hooks on the entire album.
Yet when I said earlier that this album feels like a shift toward a mainstream pop direction, that comment mostly extended toward the writing, which isn’t as sharp or cutting either. Granted, the shift in thematic scope is understandable, given what Smith has gone through over the past few years; but it’s a shift in scope that reminds me most of what Brandy Clark did with her latest album. When Smith comments on the scene around her, the details are always sharp and poignant, like “lovers under movie scene streetlights kissing each other like he’s coming home from war” on “Midnight In New York City.” But when the focus mostly plays to the common redemptive arc of “one lover saves the other,” it’s far less interesting or unique. It’s not so much bad as it is repetitive, where the details just don’t really arise. She’ll often allude to past trials and tribulations when addressing her current state in “Long Time Coming” or “Put Me Back Together,” but we either never get those details, like on the former track, or when we do, like on the latter track, the references made feel fleeting and speak more to a younger, narrower perspective that’s not as unique to Smith.
Then again, sometimes the details don’t really clear up the situation either. I get the sentiment she was going for on “Rare Bird,” but telling your lover you want to “lock them up in a cage” and “never let them get away” isn’t exactly endearing, even metaphorically. I can’t deny Smith isn’t doing some serious heavy lifting to save some otherwise weaker tracks, but there is a limit to how far that can go. And not to sound like a broke record, but if I’m going to point to the tracks that are compelling … again, the title track speaks to the fleeting passage of time and how much growing up Smith has done in a short amount of time, and if there’s any song that’s like a mini-movie playing out, it’s definitely “Midnight In New York City.” And of all the tracks opting for the redemptive arc, at least “Fly Away” has the catchiest chorus and hook.
Overall, Supernova is an odd fit for Smith, with production that’s lifeless and stiff and writing that’s repetitive and not nearly as sharp as her previous work. It’s an album that tries to be dynamic, yet forces it too hard, when the real shame is that Smith doesn’t need the production gimmicks to be bold. I do want to stress that it’s not bad, however, and does carry a few highlights that push it just above average. But it is a disappointing sophomore effort overall, and it’s a shift in tone and style that I hope gets a course correction soon, because Smith’s star could certainly burn a whole lot brighter than this.
(Very light 6/10)
- Favorite tracks: “Supernova,” “Fly Away,” “Midnight In New York City,” “Damn You For Breaking My Heart”
- Least favorite track: “Rare Bird”