Songwriting personalities as confidently idiosyncratic as Daniel Smith’s come around only once in a blue moon, so when they release music it’s always cause to pay attention. Five years after his triumphant Ships album, a lot has changed internally. Though with its roster of guest artists Ships was ostensibly a step away from the family-centric credo most of his creative outings have been guided by, new album Best of Gloucester County (a reference to his home region’s annual local awards) was recorded with completely different, biologically unrelated instrumentalists (excepting the still-unrelated but returning Sufjan Stevens with his assured hands on banjo), bringing back only his sisters for background vocals and promoting his wife to lead vocals on one track. The Danielson brand of indie-pop is still buoyant, but with the new players it is smoother, streamlined, and more tasteful ( for better or worse).
The album title isn’t a lark, as this new batch of songs sees the Danielson voice embracing themes of domesticity and aging, traversing the mental space inhabited when you settle somewhere. The goofy one-two punch of “Lil Norge” and “People’s Partay” even seem to emanate from a daddy place, bordering on the type of music you’d hear at an elementary school play. Yet, this focus on growing up doesn’t eliminate the oddness from Danielson’s music, as he signals in the first few seconds of the album with one of his counterintuitive downshifting chord changes. “Complimentary Dismemberment Insurance” sets the scene of the album well, flashing back to a scene from the documentary Danielson: A Family Movie where he’s looking through an album of his old press clippings. He uses this image to paint a picture of an artist stagnating and tied down by responsibilities to others, and trying to find the motivation to move forward with his own explorations. The rest of the album sees him finding inspiration, predictably, in awe of a supernatural power, but also from the modest settings of daily life. In addition to the psychedelic pastel irrigation rigs on the album cover, food shows up in a majority of songs, both in celebrating its simple but powerful role as a central organizing principal in our communities and in highlighting how absurd us meager mortals are to need such daily fuelings.
Musically, Best of Gloucester County is cut from very much the same meticulously herky jerky cloth as his last few releases, especially the first half. Smith’s inimitable creaky, yelping croon is back and it is still an acrobatic treasure. The production rings clear and the arrangements ooze with warm acoustic strums. After three high quality Danielson folk rock tracks, the album’s momentum takes an end around through the preciousness of the aforementioned “Lil Norge” (a vocal three-way between the Swedish Jens Lekman, Smith’s Norwegian ex-pat wife Elen, and the fried food-loving American played by Smith) and “People’s Partay”. The former seems more like a distraction while the latter’s story of a small party that turns into a street dance and then into a massive influx of trainloads of fun-seekers is a smile-inducing, feel-good goof. The second half takes a turn for the more relaxed, with dreamy folk marches and slowly unraveling ragas. While somewhat middling at times in comparison to the first half, it is a refreshing change of pace which makes for a better setting for Smith’s devotionals, the faraway choral vocals and repetitive acoustic jangle of “Hosanna In the Forest” expressing his spiritual wonder better than any vocal repetition of the idea “You are so good.”
Which leads to the biggest criticism of his songwriting formula. It usually starts with a neat terrestrial idea which provokes a specific emotion, but almost always resolves itself in religious revelry. Depending on how satisfied you are with the same answer to every problem, this can get old pretty fast. Smith’s penchant for wonder, while remarkably unshakeable and to a certain extent admirable, leads him to lyrics like “The seed sprouts and it grows all by itself / But how we don’t know”, which is only correct if the “we” he’s talking about is people who don’t pay attention to the advancements of science. If you follow evolutionary biology you do know that seeds are a strategy used by acquatic plants to move on land and reproduce, and if you follow evolutionary development, you know that they grow in accordance with the expression of the very specific genetic tool-kits embedded in their DNA.
Thankfully, Danielson’s music is interesting enough to look past some of these lyrical drawbacks. And for all that might rub you the wrong way, the great thing about Danielson is that even on an album where you could say he’s smoothing out the rougher edges, he still follows his muse with little concern for which way potential audiences are being rubbed. As long as his songwriting voice stays on the margins of Christian rock and indie rock, Danielson will be an outsider worth tuning in to.