It’s early evening and you’re bellied up to the bar at your favorite watering hole, The Longtime Companion. You like this place for its general state of disrepair that, in a certain light, could be mistaken for nostalgia. A layer of dust, about the thickness of a dime, appears to cover every inch of the dimly lit bar, giving the place a kind of yellowish glow.
The jukebox spins old 45s of 1950s country ballads. Every track features a warbling lap steel. This type of music suits the patrons of The Longtime Companion. The crowd is older and entirely male; everyone looks to be some variation of the narrator from The Big Lebowski. Men with leathery hands and dust-worn smiles that carve furrows in their weathered cheeks. Urban cowboys trading singles, with a silent seriousness, over racks of nine-ball.
In the background, you hear the soft, bouncing slap of an acoustic guitar followed by an eerie, springing pluck of the lap steel. The first few notes of Hank Williams’ “Ramblin’ Man” waft across the bar like the smoke of too many cigarettes. Just then, the entrance to the saloon creeps open, casting a flood of golden light across the room. Through the doorway, only the outline of a man wearing a straw hat is visible. After the door shuts, a slender man, looking to be in his early 40s, comes into focus. He strolls past the pool tables and sets his hat on the bar, occupying the stool next to yours. As introduction, you offer the man a knowing nod and return your focus to bourbon and Hank Williams.
“Don’t know if I’ve seen you around these parts before,” you say, extending a handshake to your new drinking companion.
“Name’s Sonny,” he says.
“You live near here?”
“Not too far,” Sonny says, signaling the bartender for another whiskey. “I live just outside of town in a small spot on the beach.”
“So what’s your story?” you ask.
Sonny offers a half-smile and squinted eyes that appear fixed on some otherwise invisible horizon. It’s more of a wince than a grin. “You don’t want to hear my story,” he says. “It’s a bummer.”
“I like train wrecks,” you say. “Try me.”
On his new record Longtime Companion, we find Sonny Smith grappling with change, both professional and personal. After a disappointing pair of releases on Fat Possum, Smith has found a new home at Polyvinyl Records. He is also fresh off the break-up of his marriage. To tackle these issues, Smith has moved his project, Sonny and the Sunsets, from the Link Wray side of the Bay Area surf rock scene towards a country-infused sound fit for the honky tonk. This is a logical decision, as country music has long served as a platform for the downtrodden and brokenhearted.
Why do we love break-up records? The late rock critic Paul Nelson offered up an explanation in his 1975 review of Neil Young’s post-divorce record Zuma, saying, “Listening to these cancerous, often brilliant albums, one feels like a police reporter or a priest hearing a heartbreaking last confession.” There is certainly merit to this point but I would argue that our interest is more selfish. We don’t seek the confession; we seek understanding. The opportunity to interpret another’s pain so completely allows us to better understand our own feelings when we are forced to endure similar circumstances.
At the crux of this album, lies the title and closing track “Longtime Companion.” It’s here where Smith most effectively blurs the line between the personal and professional. When he sings in the chorus, “I’m going to try to make you love me / I’m going to try to make you care / I’m going to try to make you stay” listeners are left to wonder whether he’s referencing his lost love or his fickle fan base.
The album’s strongest track remains its debut single “Pretend You Love Me,” an acoustic slow roll highlighted by gorgeous flourishes of flute. Smith pleads for the restoration of his marriage, realizing that even feigned love is better than no love at all. “Pretend You Love Me” is as fine a driving song as any in recent memory.
There are times when I wish Smith would wrangle with his feelings less directly. The bitterness and helplessness of tracks like “I See the Void” and “My Mind Messed Up” can be draining. The beauty of an album like Zuma lies in Young’s ability to make a song about Spanish conquistadors double as a discussion on the theft of innocence as he does on “Cortez the Killer.” With the exception of the symbolism found on the Johnny Cash-like foot-stomper “Year of the Cock,” Smith deals with his hard times head on, without filter. Does Longtime Companion rank among the great break-up albums of all time? Maybe not. Is it a captivating account of a man at an emotional crossroads? Most assuredly.
Written by Rob Peoni
For his eighth studio album, Sonny Smith will deal almost explicitly with a familiar theme: the break-up. Longtime Companion is due to hit stores on June 26, and finds Smith wrestling with heartache of a busted 10-year marriage. Judging from the first single, “Pretend You Love Me”, we can discern that Smith and his backing band, The Sunsets, have abandoned the surf-heavy garage rock of their 2011 release Hit After Hit for a mellowed, country vibe.
Sonny and the Sunsets are in the midst of a professional divorce at the same time that their lead-singer deals with his personal one. After a pair of flops during a stint with Fat Possum, the band will release their latest LP on Polyvinyl Record Co. I can’t speak to the quality of the entire release, but I am excited by the change of pace indicated on the first single. And let’s be honest, who doesn’t love a good break-up record? They have represented some of the biggest hits of the last several years (see: Adele 21, The Black Keys Brothers). Perhaps this new chapter, personally and professionally, will lead to success for Smith and the gang. Listen to “Pretend You Love Me” below.
Written by Rob Peoni