listening booth: Darden Smith, “Sunflower”

Written by Music

Darden Smith – Sunflower (2002)

Having spent large chunks of my life around musicians and other assorted music geeks, I’ve grown accustomed to a certain amount of bitterness with regards to popular musical tastes. The way I see it, the music-listening population of the world is divided into two groups: Those who are perfectly happy to listen to the radio all day, and those who hate them.

Well. Maybe “hate” is too strong a word, but still, there are a lot of music lovers who firmly believe that the bulk of the record-buying population consists of idiots — empty vessels who go out and purchase whatever they happen to hear on the radio. This view holds that if the corporate stranglehold over FM radio could somehow be broken, then “real” music would be able to break through to the unwashed masses, and Hilary Duff would no longer have a recording career. I’m simplifying a bit, but if you care about music at all (and if you don’t, I’m not sure what you’re doing here), you’ve heard this argument. You’ve probably made this argument at least once.

I certainly have. Only I don’t really believe it. Like a lot of theories that seem to make perfect sense, it’s too pat (and elitist) to be true; radio playlists haven’t always been researched and tested to death (or even at all), and yet they’ve always been heavy on lowest-common-denominator pap. Guys like Dylan and Springsteen rose to the forefront of a popular culture just as vapid as our own. Music cranks, I think, would mostly make good Republicans — they’re forever calling for a return to traditional values that never really existed in the first place.

So if I don’t believe it, why have I used this rhetoric? Well, because I’m an idiot, mostly, but also for what I believe to be the same reason everyone else does it: We have a hard time believing our own tastes are unpalatable to the majority. If our favorite brilliant songwriter of the moment is waiting tables at Shoney’s to pay the rent, it must be because of the fucking system, man, and because everyone else is retarded.

Now, I’m not suggesting that this hypothetical songwriter isn’t brilliant, and certainly, plenty of great music has fallen through the cracks for no good reason. On the main, however, I think the stuff that deserves an audience will find one eventually. I realize that by making this statement, I seem to be suggesting that Hilary Duff’s music deserves an audience, and I guess there’s no way around that. I’m a pop culture critic, not a musicologist, and I don’t have the vocabulary (or, frankly, the patience) for an in-depth examination of the objective merits of radio candy. (Or anything else, actually.) What I can say is that I thought “So Yesterday” was actually a pretty good song — catchy, cute, and focused on its performer’s strengths. I suppose that’s sort of my point, in a weird way. There are people who want — demand — to be moved or educated by their music, and there are people who just want something they like listening to; both approaches are perfectly valid, and neither is intrinsically better than the other. When you get right down to it, I believe this argument extends to the music itself — that there’s actually nothing that makes Lou Reed objectively better or worse than, say, Justin Timberlake — but that’s a post for another day.

What I’m ultimately getting at with all this is that when I see used copies of Darden Smith’s Sunflower selling for thirty-five cents on Amazon, despite all my stated beliefs, I still say to myself, “I firmly believe that the bulk of the record-buying population consists of idiots.” Because I’m a music crank, and a hypocrite of the highest order, and Sunflower is a really, really great album.

My marriage fell apart and my career fell apart, and I started asking, ‘What’s the point?’

If I’m doing this for the money, well, the money’s pretty tenuous. If I’m doing it for the prestige, well, that’s pretty shallow. Even into my mid-30s, I was trying to be cool with my music rather than being completely truthful. They tell you as a kid that it’s always easier to tell the truth, and I learned that it’s true. Most of the songs on this album are not very fictional. I find that the circus of life is way more fascinating than anything I could dream up.

In the back of my yard, between the house and studio, is a big patch of ground we planted in wild flowers and prairie grasses of all kinds. The whole idea of this is to not water and let what happens happen. Not having any experience with this kind of thing, it’s hard to tell what’s what when everything first starts to come up in the spring. These ugly, spikey weeds came up and didn’t seem to be anything worth keeping. Everything else was blooming but these big weeds. I was ready to pull them until a friend came over and said they were sunflowers. In a few short weeks after they were saved from the trash heap, the most beautiful blossoms appeared. Tall, almost nine feet, and graceful, they moved with the wind like some kind of plant world matron looking over their brood. And they lasted forever. After the other plants started to wilt with the Texas heat, the sunflowers kept strong.

They seemed like a good talisman for this record. Songs are like weeds. You never know how they’ll turn out. In a way, we’re all like that too. At a certain moment we’re all a bunch of weeds, then we hit a good streak and it’s blossom time.

That’s a quote from Smith about the album, and it makes it sound like a pretty somber affair. I suppose it is, but we aren’t talking Depeche Mode-style angst; rather, it’s an honestly reflective look at the wreckage of life and love. If you’ve ever written a song, you know it’s incredibly difficult to address a complicated subject — especially in four minutes or less — without overly simplifying things. When it comes to love, this is especially tricky; it all boils down to who’s to blame. On Sunflower, Darden Smith paints only in shades of gray, but he uses so many of them that you might as well be looking at a three-dimensional mural.

Sometimes, this is due largely to execution. Smith’s voice is so calm and gentle that he could sing almost anything and make it sound reasonable — at one point, he shared a label with Onyx, the rap group that went platinum with an album called Bacdafucup; he claimed his next album would be titled Could You Please Move Over. The production, which consists mainly of nylon acoustic guitar, bass, piano, and hushed drums, also lends to the overall mood. But mainly, Darden Smith is just an extremely talented songwriter, and Sunflower is his best album, borne of equal parts heartache and honesty. There are no easy answers in these songs, but he isn’t looking for them — he’s looking for hope, and that’s the silver thread that ties the whole thing together.

I guess the highest compliment I can pay Sunflower is to say it’s a set of songs about real life. Very often, the most a good pop song can hope for is to capture the essence of a single moment — usually falling in or out of love — but these songs manage to distill whole experiences. Maybe they’re only the experiences of people like me, and that’s why Smith is ekeing out barely-noticed albums on an independent label. In fact, that’s probably the case. And that’s okay. But you know what? A big part of me still hopes these are songs that pretty much anybody can fall in love with. Give these three a shot:

Darden Smith – Perfect Moment
Darden Smith – Dreams Don’t Lie
Darden Smith – Swept Away

And hey, if you like these, you can get the whole album at Amazon for a lot less than a single damn dollar.