After four years of dutifully traveling the road to rock-band relevance—from high-school origins to forgoing college in favor of endless touring—Chicago indie-pop outfit Smith Westerns have either matured or just tuckered themselves out. Following two albums of irresistibly vibrant and scrappy garage-glam anthems, the band ratchets the energy down a couple notches on Soft Will: If 2009’s self-titled debut and 2011’s fantastic Dye It Blonde barreled urgently down a highway of sparkly hooks, warmly grand choruses, and throwback party-hard aesthetics, this album takes an off-ramp for a nostalgic cruise through the streets of their childhood homes and haunts. Taking stock of their new lives as full-time musicians, brothers Cullen and Cameron Omori and guitarist Max Kakacek (backed by new drummer Julien Ehrlich) reflect on damaged relationships and loneliness, still-unachieved ambitions, misplaced confidence, and persistent insecurities—considerably more serious themes than the bratty boasts of youthful indifference that marked their earlier work.
The tempered songs of Soft Will, however, don’t feel thoughtfully restrained as much as deflated of enthusiasm. Things start off pleasant enough with the charming “3am Spiritual”—an airy chant-along that sets a sunny, optimistic tone—and they remain inoffensively low-effort on the sparkly, reverb-glossed “Idol.” But from “XXIII,” a moody, spaced-out instrumental nod to Pink Floyd, the subdued pacing takes a turn for the limp and restless.
Hope for a more spirited second half rises with the record’s best track, “White Oath,” an introspective rock ballad that slowly builds a quiet electric-guitar strum and lush vocals into a dramatic, plaintive chorus of “I’m trying to catch my breath.” However, by the time it’s done plodding through midtempo filler such as “Only Natural” on the way to humdrum finale “Varsity,” the band barely seems to have had 10 songs in them at all. Certainly, after two compelling albums of breezy vintage power-pop, there’s nothing wrong with Smith Westerns taking a calmer, contemplative direction, and Soft Will shows that the group has some weighty things on their minds to share. That’s a big part of becoming sophisticated songwriters, but it will never adequately replace a lack of passion.