by Andrew Kaster
Daniel Smith is an odd man, there is no doubt about that. Overtly religious while at the same time outlandish and idiosyncratic, Smith has a penchant for being theatrical in his attempts to spread the word of his psychedelic gospel. However, it’s this sort of eccentric persona that has exiled him to the fringes of indie-pop. It begs the question of whether or not he has followers. Indeed he does, but it’s hard to believe that even his devotees will be wholly satisfied with Best of Gloucester County. Where his last effort, Ships, was charmingly bombastic and over-the-top (in the best way possible), his latest seems relatively inconsequential. The stripping-down of the loosely defined Danielson “family” (cultist insinuations aside) may be the cause. But more likely, it’s simply a matter of Smith running out of creative steam and finding himself unable to stand upright on his own. Where Ships was acute in delivering poignant orchestral stabs, Best of Gloucester County seems rather off-the-cuff, as Smith feverishly rummages through his typical melodic approaches in a somewhat unpolished and hurried manner.
Nonetheless, Best of Gloucester County is a perfectly enjoyable and pleasant album. The only problem is that it’s just that. The moments of spiritual brevity are sort of ephemeral, resulting in an album that sounds important but isn’t necessarily so. It’s akin to one rolling and amassing suite that never delivers infatuating melodies or emotional catharsis. While fans are still treated to the kind of “Daniel Johnston meets Genesis” crooning that has come to be expected from Danielson, the family quality that is just as expected seems to exist only in conservative amounts. The communal feeling that made past Danielson albums so celebratory seems to only blossom fully in the songs “Lil Norge” (a bouncy pop number reminiscent of primordial of Montreal tracks) and the somewhat glam “But I Don’t Wanna Sing About Guitars”. For whatever reason, the family seems noticeably absent on other tracks, revealing just how one-dimensional Smith is without collaborators.
It isn’t until the final four tracks on the album where Best of Gloucester County seemingly finds purpose. Beginning with the lulling “You Sleep Good Now” (featuring longtime collaborator Sufjan Stevens on banjo), the album assumes a placid and pensive character that carries over until the final, twinkling notes of “Hosanna in the Forest”. Though not nearly as hedonic as the rest of the album, it’s during this winding-down where Smith is finally able to stand strong on his own. Possibly it’s because these four songs are considerably more introspective (“sons and daughters, my bruised ego needs you,” he yearns on the beautifully folksy “Denominator Bluise”). It’s nevertheless an approach that works on an album that sounds increasingly more like a solo effort in comparison to past Danielson efforts.
The image of Danielson may be a bit of a faux pas. However, it was nevertheless something to unify the sporadic ideas of Daniel Smith. The construction of Best of Gloucester County isn’t so lithe; Smith undercuts his own momentum through what sounds largely like a mere retread of the same ideas he expressed on Ships (sans the explosive orchestral backing). It’s a bit of a more “low-key” album, which fails to compliment Smith’s hubris. While always too playful to be preachy, Danielson sounds unable to mature into something more interesting, at least on this record. Delirious troubadour, surreal evangelist, Ed Wood of Christian persuasion; you can call Smith whatever you wish. The fact remains that he’s simply a bit of an oddball who is only as strong as the family that surrounds him. A Christian moral if there ever was one.