Courtesy of Empty Cellar Records

March 22, 2016

TEST SPIN: Sonny Smith — Sees All Knows All

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Everybody’s a loner bum. All of our ten dollar jackets have bead-black cigarette burns on the sleeves, and we all know how to strum a chord or two on somebody else’s pawn shop guitar. Our hair scraggles in matted insect homes down past our shoulders, and our crumbled asphalt stubble trickles day by sunscorched day into flowing deluges of little follicular lives emanating from dirtstained smiling faces. We’ve all got a thin, spine-worn volume of Bukowski’s poetry shoved haphazard into the ripping back pocket of our wrong-sized jeans. We all know how to write, and we like doing it, too. Nobody’s job means that, no, sorry, I can’t go out into the night tonight, I’ve got work tomorrow morning. Each and every one of us has seen a thing or two we could’ve cared to walk on past, but our eyes that did that seeing are just too burnt out from staring at the sun at this point to even really bother recalling this or that cracked waning moonlit vision which in reality haunts our rapid-eye unreality every goddamn night as we lay curled on some barely willing old friend’s couch. None of us has ever given suicide so much as an inch of our headspace, but we’ve all, each one of us, given it a bit of a try, if only once. Nor do we ever really shower, either.

If all of this were true, every one of us would have made an album like Sees All Knows All by now. Not everybody’s would be as good, of course (cuz even in such a dys-[u?]-topia, there’s gotta be some kind of talent differential), but everyone would at least have the experience to back it up. And that really is the first and maybe most important ingredient to Sonny Smith’s new record: the experience. It’s got six tracks, each of which he dubs a chapter. Each chapter is a kernel — vignette seems like a bit too refined a word — and all of the kernels bleed together; but they’re not exactly holding hands.

If they were, in fact, holding hands and harmonious, Sees All Knows All wouldn’t be nearly the record I think it was intended to be. But the story that Sonny Smith tells with this album isn’t that of a life that’s easy to swallow or everyday. What he says is hardly even rational. But despite all odds, it is real — the kind of bottom-of-yer-belly, purposeless real that tips its listener’s chair backwards in a swirling mist of contemplation and regret over the fact that you can’t just drop everything you’re doing and move onto the street and live the life that your books have told you you’re supposed to live and write and write and write. But Sonny Smith isn’t just some jaded, drugged out faux-shaman who won’t realize that money actually has its merits until it’s $200 too late — because right when Sees All Knows All was about to make me throw up my hands and dive headlong into whatever my idealistic conception of what “real life” might be, Smith would toss some grungy, anti-romantic truth or unabashed celebration of normalcy into his narrative, an affirmation of the life that I am and everybody else I know is living. The world that Sonny Smith inhabits — the life that he lives, the story that he’s accumulated to tell for himself — isn’t one of unrequited ambition or dingy, romantic yearning on the negro streets at dawn; in the end it’s just a life. It’s a life different from that which most of us have lived, but it’s no better or no worse than that of those whose story has no room for streetlight streetfights or schizophrenic wanderings or shady business deals or nights of ayahuaskan confusion. What the real difference is is that Sonny Smith just knows how to talk about that life a little bit better than his peers, but without sheen and without polish and without pretension and with a nose for what really matters, even if he hasn’t entirely found it yet.

What it comes down to, I guess, is fuck conceit. Fuck beauty. Because he tried to invalidate the life which Sonny was living, fuck the rich photographer who tells Sonny in “Broke Artist,” “You never developed a sellable skill, a useful craft or a practical talent. You thought you could make it on your art, and you didn’t.” And praise Sonny’s response: “Well fuck you. Fuck you and fuck the way this world works.”

If I know the way this world works even a quarter as well as I think I do, Sees All Knows All is gonna drift off into the collective memory of a handful of scruffy art-bums who think that this is it, man (me included). But really this is art, and it’s art as something lively. It’s is art as something necessary, it’s art as something sordid. It’s an album as a story, and a 30 minute story as an entire life: Sees All Knows All is art as something essential — it’s art as a life.

Troy Sherman is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]