If you chased down some cowboys headed into the sunset, handed them a banjo and a flute, demanded to be serenaded with songs about a dissolving relationship and then captured it all in a can, the result would probably be the identical twin to Longtime Companion. The pun here is obvious – Sonny Smith isn’t too sunny in this album. He churns out reams of discontent lyrics over mild melodies, moody guitar and unassuming harmonies.
Not too long ago, Sonny showcased his inexhaustible ability to hit on a range of ideas and genres. He master-minded a project that consisted of 100 fictional bands for which he wrote two songs each and had visual artist illustrate album covers to match. Longtime Companion offers up yet another side of his sides. It’s stocked with songs that all share laid-back plucked instrumentation, quiet backing vocals and repetitive verses that blend into simple choruses. The songs seem to bleed into each other, like an Old western movie montage scene of horseback riding over hill after hill. The contrast from the broad range covered in his “100 Records” work makes the stead-fast dedication to a consistent and precise tone throughout the album particularly powerful.
Although carefully crafted, the world that Sonny & the Sunsets choose to occupy for Longtime Companion feels a little more stripped and flat when compared with the band’s previous releases like the jovial rock and roll of Hit After Hit and the poppy beats and lush surf-like harmonies of Tomorrow is Alright. It might initially sound like Sonny is singing with the detachment of a son forced by his mother to perform at a family gathering. But once you catch on to his vibe, it’s clear that his style isn’t about reservation but character construction. His trademark monotone vocal style makes the album more than just a case of the folk-gone-old-country. It’s something you can see when the band performs – they seem to have a fascination with cultivating character. They throw in unconventional talking interludes and silly lyrics. It feels a little like one-upping the genre – being able to create the classic old timey sound but with a soft sense of humor about it that allows for creativity and fun where seriousness might have been too overwhelming.
This musical battle between nonchalant, pleasant melodies and disheartened lines is an ongoing theme. This is first vividly apparent in the second song “Children of the Beehive.” Lyrics like “it’s too hard to be in love/I can’t stand the pain” and “I’m stuck in the sea/the sea of love/love and pain” are spruced up by toe-tapping beats and classically country guitar tunes. As the album unfolds, you can hear the stages that Sonny experienced during his breakup with a girlfriend of 10 years. He reminisces about having been “through some things together” over a dancing, fairy-like flute section in “Pretend You Love Me.” He dejectedly explains “I can be alone if you gotta go/But it ain’t my first choice/No no no/Only time will tell whether we stick together” in “See the Darkness.” The album ends with a defiant “I’m gonna try to make you love me/I’m gonna try to make you care” in the song “Longtime Companion.”
Two of the songs stand out from the groove the others create. While “Year of the Cock” is sonically one of the most traditional, it’s lyrically zany. Meanwhile, “Rhinestone Sunset” is lyric-free and sounds just as much like a fast-forwarded line-dancing number mixed with the Disney Main Street Electrical Parade as you’d imagine.
For a breakup album, Longtime Companion is pretty upbeat. For an installment of Sonny & the Sunsets, it’s not. Although enjoyable, the forecast for the band’s future music might promise more of their creative spunk if the full-blown country is now out of their system.