When a band breaks up, the first solo album to rise from the ashes is usually an attempt at a clean break. The artist in question has a real opportunity to establish themselves beyond the band dynamic. However, this becomes more difficult when, for all intents and purposes, you were the band to begin with. Thus, you end up with Jack White’s solo records (fine, but indistinguishable from White Stripes albums); Christopher Owens’ albums (which are essentially Girls albums with a few more pretentious trappings around them); and now we have the first post-Smith Westerns album from Cullen Omori, that band’s singer and principal songwriter. On New Misery, Omori makes an admirable attempt to distinguish himself, but the ghosts of the past still hover over the whole affair.

From the opening notes of “No Big Deal,” it’s clear that Omori isn’t straying too far from his comfort zone on New Misery. The sweet, ‘60s-inspired melodies and that near-perfect mix of fuzzy and crisp guitar is all here, and the keyboards and synths in the background indicate an alternate history where the Smith Westerns picked up where they left off after Soft Will. It’s a fine tune, arguably better than most of Soft Will, but it’s still very much what we’ve come to expect from Omori, and much of New Misery plays out like that. It’s a shame, too, because the second half of the album finds Omori shifting directions in a big, big way. First single “Cinnamon” is indicative of this, as it’s grander and more expressive than anything Omori has written before. Songs like “Sour Silk” and “LOM” further develop this grandiose approach to great effect, and it’s hard not to wonder how New Misery would have turned out if Omori had committed more fully to this style of songcraft.

While the album does share some of Smith Westerns’ musical DNA, it differs crucially in terms of the lyrical tone. The album title isn’t meant to be taken lightly; New Misery grapples with sadness and heartbreak in a way that’s more open than Omori has ever done before. “Poison Dart” stretches the Smith Westerns sound into a languid, sullen ballad as Omori laments over a relationship he knows is absolutely doomed. Even the cheerful “Cinnamon” finds Omori remarking that “All we are, my love, is unremarkable.” While it often sounds familiar, New Misery still leaves the no-frills fun of songs like “Weekend” in the distant past, and the album is all the better for doing so.

It’s possible that Omori is still unsure of exactly how to move on after the Smith Westerns. Given his age, it’s understandable, and anyone who has listened to Omori’s former bandmate Max Kakacek’s new band Whitney knows that Kakacek hasn’t exactly left the past behind, either. Still, for all of its flaws, New Misery is a promising debut. Omori demonstrates growth and a willingness to challenge himself on the album, even if he’s still a bit unsure of where to go. In time, Omori will find his own distinct voice, but New Misery lays down impressive groundwork.

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