Nobody wants to only be known by their decisions of their teenage years. These are the years that you figure yourself out, make some lame choices and some great ones, too. But there comes a time where you must fly the nest you crafted yourself and relocate elsewhere. Former frontman of the Smith Westerns, Cullen Omori has taken flight and found himself on a journey of dark dream-pop on debut solo album ‘New Misery’.
Since the breakup of Chicago’s adored indie rock band back in 2014, Cullen starts “I guess I’ve learned to really temper my expectations.”
‘New Misery’ tackles Cullen’s inner battle, where he’s not a “constant” pessimist, but instead “much more realistic about everything.” It was written as he crawled around in the dark trying to figure out who he was as a musician, suddenly alone and with nobody to kick him up the arse with a deadline.
The album is awash with soft synths and jangly, rhythmic guitar, Cullen’s vocals are soothing, but distant. It elegantly tears up the rulebooks of pop and throws them to the wind. “I feel like I can see through romanticised ideas as the fake bullshit they are.” Fucking with irony and contradiction, the full length isn’t crystal clean but knows which direction it’s headed.
If ‘New Misery’ were a film, it’d be directed by Gus Van Sant (Good Will Hunting, Milk). Tom Sizemore would star, and according to Cullen’s plot, he’d “be in his house doing a ton of meth and working up the courage to kill himself.” It doesn’t pack a happy ending, either. “At the end he decides not to, but accidentally OD’s.”
"I had to approach writing the music differently."
— Cullen Omori
These songs are “heavy snapshots” of where Cullen was, and who he thought he was while engaging in “really self-destructive behaviour throughout 2014” following the breakup of Smith Westerns.
To get out of the house, he ended up doing odd end jobs for friends and found himself working in a hospital. He was drenched in the radio Top 40 whilst scrubbing dirty stretchers. Consequently leading to a big portion of the album coming from an attempt “to write my own version of what I think pop music is.”
As a “student of alternative music” it was “limited by my musical skill and discerning taste.” Lead single, ‘Cinnamon’, is on first listen just as sweet as its name. It follows up with the same spiced twang. Blissful melodies and surf rock guitars capture weaving vocal harmonies with jibberish whisperings of ghostly echo. Spinning in a sugar-rushed haze, the sweetness is numbed by aching, stiff strings.
Despite this, Cullen says certain aspects of real radio pop “can’t reconcile with my musical identity. In particular the cheesy, soulless parts of mainstream pop.”
Having “lost a really talented guitar player.” Former Smith Western and now playing in Whitney, Max Kakacek, Cullen reflects “I had to approach writing the music differently.”
As a result ‘New Misery’ is tweaked with electronic tricks and treats. Scattered synths and electronic loops play with vocal distortions. The entire album feels youthful in experimentation. There’s the comfort of soothing vocals and joyous rhythms, then the exciting buzz of added touches. “It was important to me to make these solid songs with almost a soundscape layered over it.”
Finding a place for an oddball track that may seem bizarre when out of its context, is something that Cullen has a knack for. ‘Synthetic Romance’ sounds like a reimagined version of a swooning 80s boyband with a dramatic twist, though it embraces the hand of woozy, half mournful, half power inspiring ‘And Yet the World Still Turns’.
“I think at the heart of the songs is a desire for me to connect with a wider audience without doing anything to either sell out myself musically or aesthetically.” he says.
Declaring himself as no romantic, and instead “a pretty miserable person”, ‘New Misery’ explores the idea and fascinations with love in endearing ways. Sometimes with caution and undecided falsetto, other times with jubilant vibrancy, a rollercoaster of confusion as “self-awareness and self-deprecation reign over the entire album.”
When it comes to the “post post-modern” lyricism, it’s worth giving these whirling songs your full attention to catch and depict the stories. “Songs like ‘Two Kinds’ and ‘Hey Girl’ are more traditional in their content but what I'm singing isn't what I mean.”
‘New Misery’ (Full album stream)
“The lyrics on this album are like litmus tests of where I was emotionally during this ‘lost weekend’ period of my entire 2014. At points I'm able to make kind of tongue in cheek references while other times I wear my disappointment or self-doubt on my sleeve”
Cullen’s musings are raw, and open to interpretation. Drug inspired, alcohol infused, party prepared, these are dark tracks with a catchy lightness to them. There’s always two shades to anything, and ‘New Misery’ only certifies it.
From a whirlwind young adult life of acclaim and rock star lifestyle, to a quick comedown, Cullen faces his situation front on.
You either dance whilst drenching yourself in bittersweet, upbeat irony, or you wallow in self-pity and befriend yourself with downbeat words.
“It's scary, I've put out such a big part of myself, and I've offered it up for people to connect with or to destroy it.”
By the end of it, distortion is a peace of mind.
Cullen Omori's 'New Misery' album is out now via Sub Pop. He plays DIY's Horatio's stage at The Great Escape, Thursday 19th May, 11.15pm.