aniel Smith should probably buy Sufjan Stevens a nice dinner somewhere. Sure, Smith gave him exposure and a studio to record Seven Swans in, but Stevens brought the bombastic sardine-tight-arrangement mild folk-pop that both trade in to greater notoriety than Smith probably ever thought possible. What’s more, Sufjan, in his God-fearing piety, has obscured the Christian witch-hunt that has long existed amongst underground music fans.
A funny thing happened on the way to Smith’s newest album Ships, though: at a time when indie fans are slowly accepting more overtly religious artists, Smith is gradually becoming more secular. Ships shelters few moments of transparent worship, although you could probably read more into the album’s nautical theme and Roman numbering than I’m choosing to. Appearing simply as Danielson (sans Family or Famile or Br.), an army of collaborators flanks Smith, including Stevens and Deerhoof kit man Greg Saunier. They sound like an army too: intense, martial arrangements surround Smith’s high-wire vocals like hulking bodyguards, his wiry falsetto emboldened by the heaving orchestration.
If Smith’s religious bent has been largely blurred, so have any genre lines around his music. Folk is no longer an applicable term—Ships moves into a realm of schizophrenic pop music inhabited by groups like the Fiery Furnaces and the Flaming Lips. Consider those name-checks mere signposts rather than full-on comparisons. The most difficult aspect of Ships (other than the album’s treble-soaked outbursts) is putting a finger on its sonic mission. Ships will, in various moments, recall dozens of contemporary underground songwriters, such are the fickle nature of Smith’s melodic constructs.
Smith’s abrupt changes in tempo, volume, and instrumentation are alternately inspiring and disorienting. With any overarching narrative blacked out by Smith’s difficult, and often rushed, pronunciations, Ships feels like a record without an emotional or sonic homeland. It is indisputably pop music, and at its best—grand, archaic, fluorescent—Smith’s voice rises in concert with his soldiers to create sweet, lasting apexes. Ships reaches these heights smoothly on “Ship the Majestic Suffix,” “Tim That Bald Sexton,” and a handful of other particularly inspired moments.
Elsewhere, Smith’s arrangements and irritant chirp sink the track, potent moments skipping blindly, inspired arrangements squandered. Ships is a “good” record by almost any objective measure—Smith songs are strong and unique, his band skilled and creative—and at no point during its runtime is Ships actively a disappointment. Taken as a whole, however, this album feels oversaturated, dripping with so many players and melodies that it leaves listeners with small, unexplained headaches.