The life of Graham Smith could be a compelling screenplay were it written—at least the portion within the ranks of indie rock the last 15 years or so. But since Ponyoak, his sprawling 1999 opus that proved the lo-fi zeitgeist was attainable from the suburban bedroom of a bored teenager with a massive imagination, the public has paid him little mind. Kleenex Girl Wonder entered the new millennium at the precipice of the internet boom, and he played it as such. The 2001 double-album, Smith, revolved around skits about a supercomputer and the various ways of using the information superhighway as a means for social networking. But while I wouldn’t ever claim the guy burst, his body of work in the subsequent decade has suffered from being years ahead of its time, even if it was just the logical evolution of the cleverly written pop song. The pride of Downer’s Grove, Illinois has never truly “lived up” to his perpetually stoned slacker persona, instead pumping out four albums that have more or less resided, unfortunately, in indie obscurity. That’s not counting the endless singles that seem to exist in his back catalog. There’s a litter of Japanese imports and eight-song mini-albums to scour through if you have the patience to find it all. At some juncture, those gems will be found.
For now, though, we must assess Mr. Smith in the present, and use Secret Thinking as the metric for his progression during those years on the fringes. Simply referring back to Ponyoak and his once glaringly obvious debt to Robert Pollard is wholly unfair. Kleenex Girl Wonder’s songs have always been a balance of clever wordplay and giant, infectious choruses. It’s a formula that used to suffer from a lack of resources; clean recordings and proper editing of Smith’s oblique writing habits were never considered back then. Secret Thinking, by comparison, is bright and concise, crisp and illuminating. Even when on “The Last Step of the Stairs” he sings, “We got down in the middle of the night. Hubris will do this, and you saw the light,” you never get the feeling, as felt previously, that he’s talking over the heads of his audience. Though he can pack an exorbitant amount of syllables into his catchy couplets, the lyrics are never brainy enough to steal the charm of the melody. “In This Way” is most definitely post-grad pop, filled with quirky turns of phrase, but it’s also proof that Smith has taken great pains to distance himself not only from the Pollard specter, but also the elitist stigma attached to his lyrical patois. He’s no longer the “greatest” or “smartest man alive,” as he claimed in his youth. He’s humbled and grateful to still be making records, even if no one’s listening. Then again, he’s never succumbed to dumb down his brand of pop songwriting. The alienation that comes with listening to Secret Thinking is that few artists these days are making indie rock simultaneously this complex and instantly memorable. “See the River and Raise It” and the hilarious dope-smoking ditty, “Neon Redbone,” will sound familiar to fans of his ’90s output. Both are full of chunky nostalgic riffs and shuffling rhythms, only now bolstered by Smith’s newfound penchant for buoyant widescreen production. The true mark of Smith’s maturation, though, is found in Secret Thinking’s reflective centerpiece, the acoustically led “You Know You Want It, Anyway You Can’t Get It.” Cursing like a four-track sailor throughout, Smith also shows blistering emotion and tear-jerking heartache. He could likely die happy were this his last stand.
Early retirement is likely not in the cards. With Secret Thinking, Smith appears one step ahead of the herd (again), and no one is paying attention. It may be a Montenegrin conspiracy? The suffix to Secret Thinking’s website is either the domain of that country or a vision into the future of self-ownership on the net. Or it might be a reluctance to return to an artist who used to be guided by ego instead of his audience. One thing is for sure, if Secret Thinking does not earn Smith comeback of the year award, I’m not sure what will.
Kevin J. Elliott