Sycamore Smith “Grosspapa” Album Review
photo by VRose photography
Marquette singer-songwriter Sycamore Smith is a character, both in his songs and outside of them. This was clear to me when he played a show in my hometown of Iron Mountain, MI (a rare and thus memorable occurrence) probably nearly seven or eight years ago. Some attendee brought along a small, skittish dog who, mid-song, ran up between Smith and the crowd and took a big shit. Without missing a beat, he sneered, “Everyone’s a critic!”
This instance sticks out in my memory as a perfect encapsulation of who Sycamore Smith is: devilishly witty, reveling in crassness, a little self-deprecating but always coming out on top. His new album, Grosspapa (German for “grandpa”), does little to alter our crystal-clear portrait of Sycamore Smith the character, but it does attempt to deepen our understanding of his inner emotional world. Expectedly, the results are both dark and cartoonish.
The pleasure one gets from a Sycamore Smith song is similar to the pleasure one gets from a Magnetic Fields song. Upfront, there is the effortless wordplay, the sheer skill on display as he wrestles complicated lines, jokes, and stories into perfectly metric and rhyming lines of verse (so many couplets!). Take the album standout “Congratulations, You Survived Your Suicide” for example, which basically showcases a dozen clever ways to say exactly what the title says:
Congratulations, you survived your suicide
There were oh, so many who went before you that tried and died
But not you, you can hold your head up high
And let your failure fill you full of pride
Congratulations, your wish has been denied.
The knotty logic, plainspoken acoustic delivery, grim subject matter, and lyrical unpredictability are exactly the things that make Sycamore Smith such a pleasure to listen to.
It’s not all jokes and punchlines though. Within his oeuvre, Smith has managed to build a weird little mythos as the stage for his characters and their comedic dramas. It’s a seedy, gothic world—a little Brother’s Grimm, a little Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark—populated by machete-wielding murderesses, men with skeleton arms, retching wraiths, trickster animals, and his perpetual nemesis Flanagan. They live in places like Sickdom and Kerosene Creek, curse the Christian god (himself a kind of recurring vengeful character), and participate in all sorts of bawdy revelry.
Grosspapa expands the borders of this world a bit with the suitor-tale-gone-wrong “Muriel Milady” and the surrealist parade of “Hop in the Vat,” but notably most of these songs forego narrative for more introspective (still bleak, still silly) approaches. In particular, Grosspapa finds Smith swinging his lyrical hatchet at love and relationships. “The Billions” uses an extended metaphor of there being “a lot of hooks in the sea,” but naturally, “any time you bite one / it’s never quite the right one.” Or the heartbroken “The Lonely Peace,” where Smith croons: “My heart is busted, but still beats / it beats and beats and beats / I think it’s beating a retreat.”
Of course, every moment of vulnerability is followed up by a sly, smirking dodge: “You say you’ll miss me, well call me a softy / but that and half a buck’ll buy a bitter old coffee.” Humor has always been his escape hatch from anything too emotionally resonant, but here the two are more closely blended. I wouldn’t call this his darkest collection of songs per se, but maybe his most mature (a good indication of this is the dearth of kazoo—but come on, I miss the kazoo!). And in my opinion, any chance to have some new adventures in Sycamore Smith’s macabre landscape is worth the curses, the heartache, the tears, and the talking skeletons.