From the clarion beauty of its opening track to the intimate vulnerability of its last, Bet Smith’s new album, “Downer,” is a luminant collection of brave thoughts and purposeful reflection on the state of things, as we stand on the frontier of an uncertain future. Released today, Smith’s third album presents eight renditions of songs, some new and bold, some she has held onto since her early writing career, collected over her travels and work as a multi-disciplined artist, writer and musician.
As the title suggests, these compositions are more introspective than explanatory, some healing ancient wounds, others intended to rattle through the lethargy of inaction. All spring from an urgent need for daring resolve, either toward personal malaise or the societal paralysis, in the face of ever increasing, daunting odds. Smith, a life-long advocate for environmental concerns, is no longer pointing at the clock ticking serenely on the wall; she is counting down the minutes.
All of the pieces on “Downer,” in some way or another, share a common theme toward Smith’s passionate stance on the unprecedented immediacy of global climate disaster, looming closer and closer on the horizon for all, from the powerful and the peasant. A sense of dread infuses the recording with an honesty that comes only from an artist who has done the work and the research to know what is clearly at stake. After decades of inactions, Smith finds that the characters in her songs are caught by the turmoil of disasters rumbling on every front.
It is no accident that after months of isolated exile by most performing artists, that Smith should choose to find a way to express her concerns and sorrows about the planet, injustice and faltering leadership. Consistent with her vision, that humanity must rise to the challenges presented by the climate crisis, Bet Smith has crafted her songs almost meditatively around one clear message, “Now is not the time for staying silent.”
The opening track, “Forgive You,” is by far the most powerful and direct, both in lyric and melody, that Smith has recorded in her career as a songwriter. Immediately, the clarity of her vocal, the crisp, subtle guitar tones overwhelm the emotions. Bet worked relentlessly to focus the lyrics and the chorus to effectively express her anguish and dismay over what she describes as, “economic injustice, greed, and environmental destruction and climate crisis.” While the lyric is ambivalent, the pointed reference to the ‘you’ in need of forgiveness shifts in the listener’s imagination from a spurned lover, to a corrupt industrialist, to an avarice speculator, to the listener themselves. All are interconnected through blindness. Neither self-aware or compelled to reform or even lift a hand, “now you can’t ignore the stench. coming up through the floor.”
“Forgive You” is memorable for many of its attributes, especially Bet’s clear, sustain vocals filled with barely contained rage and audible despair. The track is outstanding and made even deeper so with the electric guitar work of Rob Currie, who serves as producer, arranger and instrumentalist. The track has an almost timeless quality to it, echoing production values similar to Daniel Lanois’ and Brian Eno’s seminal work from a previous era, yet somehow retaining Rob’s distinctive feel and approach. For fans of Bet Smith’s previous work, this song in particular has the characteristics of breakout FM classic – while it keeps company with the other songs on the album, it stands alone, powerful, and defiant, like all great songs should.
From its startling opening, “Downer,” develops alternatively between personal introverted remembrances to outright discouragement. On “Some Greater Power,” Smith outlines her clear intent with the recording, “You tell me I’ve been wasting my time, singing songs and thinking thoughts about the earth, if I won’t raise my voice up to God, then what’s the point of all these silly words?” Pointedly, expressing her concerns over the politicization of faith, Bet transcends what could easily be mistaken for mere criticism, to the level of a more substantial, existential debate.
Smith includes a few tender moments with songs such as “All of the above,” and “North Ontario,” the latter filled more with heartbreak, the former more acerbic. Yet it must be stated that her lyrics and serious songs regarding pending climate chaos, are the more prominent. The characters introduced in “I Would Rather Run” are trapped in a dystopian future facing the dilemma of standing to protect their meager patch of arable land or running for survival. The tune could not be timelier. Failing democratic principles of fair play, justice and transparency are collapsing on prime-time television all around the globe. Few reports have ever focused on the massive refugee crisis that inhabitable land will entail. While it’s a “Downer” to talk about these impending catastrophes, artists of good faith have no choice. Bet Smith has never more clearly defined her feelings and her doubt about the outcomes that appear foretold and needlessly avoidable.
In many ways, “Downer” is almost two albums realized in one. On a few of these tracks, Bet plays alone with only her guitar and voice shining through. These songs, of course, are close to the heart like whispers or prayers. Her reimaging of “Signs of Hostility,” which she recorded on the 2015 “Loose Ends” EP, is stripped of other players, with only her guitar and some added percussion, making the statement more stark and realistic than its predecessor. The title track, itself the final song on the album, presents the dilemma of a couple faced with “the whole world in a mess,” and asking what’s next. Plaintive, hauntingly simple, Bet cuts through the fog and speaks directly to those who can hear. With its repeated guitar refrain, she ends the album alone, her voice trailing off in the distance as if wakening from a daydream.
Artfully produced by Rob Currie, and supported by drummer Andrew Currie, Smith and company have delivered a provocative recording. For its beauty and scope alone, it is a work that should catapult her to national attention. In its bravery and daring of vision, Bet Smith is finding her voice, and clarifying her artistic purpose. Smith clearly deserves to be recognized as the writer she is and will be, but these songs will ring in the air for a long to come. To do nothing when there is so much to do is the message we need all carry throughout our daily lives. “Downer” is available today, via her label, Pine Lake Records.