As Darden Smith’s penchant for pop melodicism carries him ever further beyond the corral of rootsy Texas tradition, his first album of fresh material in six years can be heard as both a creative renewal and a return to form. Sunflower is easily Smith’s most satisfying since 1993′s Little Victories, though the darker themes of the material and the weathered vulnerability of his vocals suggest he has traveled some bumpy terrain over the years since. He still knows how to craft a catchy chorus, an indelible hook, but the best of his songs hit a deeper, truer place than previously.
On the album-opening “Perfect Moment”, Smith’s vocal barely rises above a whisper, with the harmony of Kim Richey reinforcing the sense of heart-to-heart intimacy, as the arrangement pivots around the stately tone of Roscoe Beck’s acoustic bass in an organic unity of sound and sense. It’s an ambitious song that doesn’t seem to be trying too hard, every element in perfect balance with the others; Smith and co-producer Stewart Lerman appear to be letting the music discover where it wants to go, what it wants to say.
The best of the rest of the material strikes a similar balance between thematic richness and musical understatement. From the Beatlesque lilt of “Satellite” to the bittersweet spareness of “Closer To You” — which somehow manages to evoke both the bluesy undercurrent of Boz Scaggs and the wispy romanticism of Chet Baker — to the edgy insistence of “Till It Bled”, Smith seems to have achieved a musical maturity beyond the facile cocksureness of some of his earlier work.
While “New Gospel” (an idea in search of a song) and the annoyingly repetitive “Stronger” (a self-help mantra in the guise of a song) fall on the wrong side of the thin line between catchy and glib, Sunflower seems to indicate that the once-precocious Smith is in fact a late bloomer, an artist beyond category who is just coming into his own.