Multimedia (Book/Music) review –  Darden Smith “Western Skies”

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A Multi-Media release that combines photography, lyrics, essays and songs to paint a bigger picture.

Back in 1989, I stumbled across a very interesting album. “Evidence” saw The Bible’s Boo Hewerdine teamed with a young Texan singer-songwriter, Darden Smith, and it became a very important album for me. Obviously, I knew of Hewerdine and had always admired his songwriting, but I’d never heard of Smith before and was instantly grabbed by the quality of his songs and the way he delivered them. I ended up buying most of his recorded output and I remain a fan to this day; I’ve always thought Darden Smith deserved a lot more recognition than he seemed to receive over the years. In 2020, I featured him in our “Forgotten Artists” series, noting that he had turned away from recording to concentrate on more integrated arts projects and educational programmes, centred around the healing powers of songwriting, particularly his SongwritingWith:Soldiers project. It has been five years since Darden Smith last released recorded material, but he is back in a big way with the release of his new, multi-media project, “Western Skies”, which teams a new recording with a book of his photographs, alongside short essays and lyrics, all inspired by his native West Texas landscape. The music represents a glorious return to the recording studio and the book is a truly stunning collection of thoughts and images around a part of the USA that, clearly, has great importance to this artist.

Smith’s songs have always been about the experiences of his own life and this is something he has tried to encourage in others, through the work of his educational programmes – using songs to help bring emotions and thoughts out to a wider audience; to make use of the powers of expression to be understood and to understand yourself. This multimedia project is the perfect extension of the work he has been doing in recent years.

The project came about, apparently, in the early days of the pandemic, when he resolved to set out on a series of road trips and attempt to capture his vision of Texas and the American Southwest. He has said that he wanted to capture a love song to the “mythology of Texas” and, by that, he doesn’t mean stories of the Old West or of Cowboys and Indians, but the images in his own mind; his personal mythology of Texas and the images and ideas that he grew up with. In an inspired decision, he took an old Polaroid camera with him to capture the images he wanted to record, and the simplicity of this piece of equipment and the stark, often bleak images he has produced, really captures the wide-open spaces and the beauty of the emptiness, obvious in so many of these photographs. Of this multi-media project, Smith says “Western Skies isn’t “about” anywhere in particular. It’s a love song to the mythology of Texas. Not the heroic, Wild West version, but the one that lives only in my head. I’ve spent a long time looking at it, and thankfully I wrote a few things down”.

One thing that must be said is that both the major aspects of this project, the book and the recordings, are extremely good stand-alone projects. The album of songs is among the best work Smith has ever recorded and if you were rating this as an individual album it would comfortably be a very high-scoring release. Similarly, the book, with its starkly beautiful images and the collection of lyrics and essays from a writer who really knows how to put words together, paints a wonderfully descriptive picture of a landscape and the people within it. Put the two together and you have the heart of a multi-media presentation that is a celebration of its creator’s home ground and the environment he lives in. As Smith intimates in Martin Johnson’s excellent interview with him, and if you haven’t read it you really should, he felt he couldn’t do full justice to this project in one media alone; it needed a multi-faceted approach to really capture the full impact of this region. It is genuinely impressive just how much of that feeling of wide, open spaces and a landscape that seems to go on forever, while being both harsh and beautiful, Smith has managed to convey by combining music, words and pictures. It all feels quite epic and that, in itself, seems appropriate to Smith’s artistic vision. The first track on the album is ‘Miles Between’ and, to these ears, it’s one of the best songs he has written and the perfect introduction to his vision and thoughts behind this project –

Cause there’s miles between all I see
Inside my dream and reality.
There’s too much noise, I lose my voice
Make me want to walk out in the desert at night and scream
I’m lost in the miles between”.

A project like this is difficult to pull off but to do it with this degree of success is very impressive. Everything combined has that feel of a road trip and you can tie the songs to the moments on the road when Smith pulled over and took a certain picture. Similarly, you can see the pictures that inspired certain lyrics or conjured up melodies and those that inspired various musings and short essays. The different media intertwine effortlessly and to great effect. The West Texas region is dry, dusty and inhospitable country, something Smith touches on repeatedly in the book with his words and images, such as in this passage from his writing on the migrants that come across the border from Mexico – “It takes either a desperate or a crazy soul to walk across the border and through this country. Water and shelter are rare. Just the plants and hard ground are enough to stop you. Everything about this landscape is on the offense. A man, woman or child, together, alone, become prey. Anyone who makes it should get a medal. Instead, we threaten them.”

When I heard about “Western Skies” I knew that it had to be reviewed as a whole. It was never going to be enough to review the music as an album release or cover the book in a standard book review. This is a genuine multi-media release and not just a book with a recording tacked on, as is so often the case. Yes, both the book and the recordings work perfectly well on their own but the true artistic merit of “Western Skies” lies in the combination of its parts and how each enhances the other. It’s an achievement that Darden Smith should be extremely proud of. The big question, of course, is how does an artist like Smith follow up on a project like this, and we’re lucky that he has already talked about that when he spoke to Martin. It seems we can expect more videos that tie aspects of the project together along with some installation shows that he’s doing back in Texas and there’s a spoken-word recording and series of drawings to come. It looks like “Western Skies” will continue to develop and grow and, on the evidence of what we have so far, that’s an exciting prospect.

Darden Smith has now entered his 60s and, while it’s not uncommon for good artists to be producing excellent work late in life, it is unusual to find them exploring new and different ways to reach their audience and pushing into unchartered waters as far as their own creativity is concerned. I’d urge anyone who has been intrigued by this review to seek out this release because it really will open your eyes to what is achievable when you combine different media. This project deserves to do well, not least because it’s good to have Darden Smith back in the wider public eye again but also because a project of this scope and ambition ought to appeal to the widest possible audience.

Pictures used in this article have been supplied by the author – © 2022 by Darden Smith / Bull By The Horns. Permission has been granted to use these images.

About Rick Bayles 354 Articles
Now living the life of a political émigré in rural France and dreaming of the day I'll be able to sing those Cajun lyrics with an authentic accent!
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