J Smith: (...) And You Chose Not to Laugh review – Beautiful and vulnerable music

(...) And You Chose Not to Laugh
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Artist: J Smith
Genre: Alternative
Label: Self-Released

A former member of the recently defunct band Gypsies on the Autobahn, James Smith releases his debut solo album on surging waves of sorrow and discomfort – heartache can be caused by many things, the songs divulge, but at the core, always, are pain and hurt. Not even deflecting the subject matter by giving the album a wry title can dispel the sense that Smith is anything but happy about songs that were shaped by the miscarriage of his wife’s first child.

That is the desolate news. The joyous news, Smith reveals in the accompanying press release, is that the couple are expecting a child in July. “We’re blessed . . . and I’m very conscious that they will hear these songs. But if anything, it will let them know how much we’ve endeavoured to meet them and it will let others out there know they’re not alone . . .”

In keeping with the notion that such personal news, good and bad, can only be initially shared with people he loves, close family and friends are at the soul of the album. Many tracks were recorded on analogue equipment either at home (with his brother Daniel) or in the homes of musicians such as Dylan Lynch and Donagh Seaver O’Leary (both of Soda Blonde).

As the months passed from pre- to present pandemic times, textures were added to the songs: a slender string quartet here, a stimulating brass quartet there, a beautifully drifting trumpet solo (Bill Blackmore on Good Women) and sublime piano-has-not-been-drinking streams (Smith on Sunday). All of which is intended to highlight just how impressively arranged and layered the music is.


There is more, of course, and it boils down to this: rarely has a collection of songs balanced music so delicately yet profoundly with deeply emotive lyrics.

“It’s a burden to know you deserve all the pain coming to you,” Smith sings on In the Death of Something Beautiful, an uncomfortable but intensely moving song. Throughout Sunday, he fails to ignore the magnet of emotion (“I’ve done my best to try and not rely on you, but when you’re gone, love songs are all I’m writing . . .”), while The Car hits home with no small impact (“I’m driving off in the car that we bought, you said it was needed for the child that we lost”).

If Smith’s intention is to first seduce listeners with nimble-fingered music and then sucker-punch us with revelation, then he has achieved just that. But the album also tells us something else: admitting vulnerability is the first step to saving yourself.


Tony Clayton-Lea

Tony Clayton-Lea

Tony Clayton-Lea is a contributor to The Irish Times specialising in popular culture