Sonny & the Sunsets - Longtime Companion
It's hard not to approach a break up-themed country record like Longtime Companion without a certain degree of cynicism. After all, it's hardly waters new for the genre; and yet, that's exactly how Sonny & the Sunsets' new label Polyvinyl are selling it. “It's a country record. It's a break up record”, the Illinois imprint's website explicitly states.
Sonny Smith, however, is no ordinary crooner. The San Francisco native is known for his prodigious output; he's collaborated with everyone from Jolie Holland to Neko Case, travelled across North and Central America and for one particular project in 2010, he went as far as to write and record 200 individual songs – a work ethic even Stephen Merritt would admire.
Longtime Companion's opening track 'I Was Born' sees Smith reflecting on his past with an almost David Copperfield-esque degree of self- analysis. "I know I was born but am I really here," he enquires, recalling a more restrained Miles Benjamin Anthony Robinson. It sets the precedent for much of the record to come, Smith questions the purpose of his own existence and the consequences of his actions throughout; his is a fairly self- centred universe, but it's certainly an interesting one.
'Dried Blood' however sees the focus shift slightly away from Smith as he takes in the sad underbelly of forgotten rural America. “Ode to the freaks and the fools and the broken hearted”, he hollers on behalf of a generation of misfits. It's a fairly obvious move – folk music being counter-cultural is virtually inherent to the more classicist strains of the genre – but it's still an effective one nonetheless.
As was perhaps to be expected from a break up record, love and loss are never far away. On 'Children of the Beehive', Smith recalls his tryst with a divorcee, accepting his culpability and regret for the failure of her marriage, admitting with wistful woe: "I am the one that made her that way."
Musically, Longtime Companion is rather uninspired and files very neatly under middle-of-the-road country. You can almost hear the carthorse plodding along to the twanging guitar lines of 'Year of the Cock', while foot-stomping instrumental 'Rhinestone Sunset' sees past and present coalescing as lap steel guitar is complimented ably by passing synthesizer frequencies in what is certainly one of the suite's strangest moments.
It's Smith's natural penchant for storytelling that keeps the wagon rolling, however. Whether examining the emptiness of mankind on 'I See the Void' or delving into his own troubled psyche on 'Mind Messed Up', there's something incredibly fascinating about Smith that leads to Longtime Companion warranting repeat listens just to understand exactly what is going on under the man's cowboy hat.
The fact remains though that save for some psychological intrigue, it's a fairly anonymous set of songs. Perhaps though, that's Smith's chosen prerogative; he's the undervalued everyman at the centre of his own world, if not anyone else's. It might just be that the anonymity and loneliness inherent to this album are intertwined; Smith is best suited to the desolate wanderings of his own destiny, taking on one meandering highway at a time; a guitar over one shoulder, a bindle on the other and a horizon ever so slowly approaching.