From first getting noticed for writing Garth Brooks’ “Tacoma” to her long-awaited 2018 solo debut project (aptly titled Starfire), one could argue Caitlyn Smith has always been awaiting that next big step to push her farther and help her become a legitimate household name. And on sheer vocal prowess alone, she’s always had the talent to get there … but oh yeah, her last project was released in the middle of March 2020, right when the pandemic took hold for the rest of the world. And the only single off of that album was a remixed duet with Old Dominion that went nowhere. Now I remember.
Granted, I’d also argue that Supernova was a bit of a messy, lateral move for her sound as a whole, so while I can’t say I’m entirely too bummed she and her label moved on from the project so quickly, I do so desperately wish she was the big success story of that label, rather than … Walker Hayes. But now we’ve moved on to “High,” which, while merely her take on a song she wrote for Miley Cyrus a few years ago, is still a reset point, and a pretty great one, at that. And though I’ve heard conflicting reports over whether her latest album is meant to stand on its own or act as part of a longer project to be released sometime later, I am glad that High (the album) is a reset point and a return to form, all in one.
And if there’s an obvious area where that return to form takes hold, it’s in the instrumentation and production, which trades in Christian Langdon’s murky, reverb-drenched stabs at pop-country for a sound Smith produced entirely herself. Yes, it’s even more of an obvious bid for radio airplay compared to the more lushly refined cuts produced by Paul Moak on Starfire, but I’d argue Smith is better for it anyway, if only to make the hooks and melodies pop even more and come across as more accessible and finely tuned across the board. Not only that, but between the more ragged, ramshackle touches added to the guitars and fiddle on the title track, the tempered acoustics nailing the tender balance of “Dreamin’s Free,” and the more breezy groove riding off “Downtown Baby,” this album definitely has a discernible edge to it that arguably nails the country-pop ambience better than anything she’s done before. Not to say that some of that overblown murkiness from Supernova doesn’t sneak its way in to “Good At Us” and hinder an otherwise good love song, but for the most part, the sound provides a needed refinement that works wonders.
Of course, take the bells and whistles away and leave her with little more than that cut-throat intimacy that’s always fueled some of her best work on past albums, and you’ve got a formula that works just as well here, from a more sensual cut like “Nothing Against You” to the devastatingly brutal one-two punch of “Maybe In Another Life” and “I Don’t Like This World Without You.” Of course, “formula” is the operative word there, because like with Supernova, the writing basically either defaults to songs about losing love or how great it is to be in it. I like the aforementioned latter cut well enough, but it’s also reminiscent of past album closers like “Cheap Date” and “Lonely Together” and is starting to feel more predictable and less like an intended aesthetic choice for Smith.
Still, while you’re not going to hear the more intricate stories that characterized her debut quite as often here, you are going to get cuts framed around the past few years that feel lived-in and authentically sweet, like “Dreamin’s Free” and “Downtown Baby,” especially when she’s still enough of a detailed writer to make familiar themes pop in their own ways, like how even though she’s settled in to a slower life on the latter cut, she still yearns for that youthful rush every now and then. And considering she only keeps refining her talents as a singer and performer – the title track really is just a vocal showcase and I’m totally OK with that – High may be short, sweet, and to the point, but it positions Smith in a new light and feels like the true reset point it was meant to be. Now if only we really could trade in “AA” for “Downtown Baby” on the radio right now. Man, that’d be nice.
- Favorite tracks: “High,” “Dreamin’s Free,” “Downtown Baby,” “Maybe In Another Life,” “Nothing Against Us”
- Least favorite track: “Good At Us”
- Favorite individual moment: “In my head, I did my very best saying good-BYE-EYE,” from “High.”