Cullen Omori was just 17 years old when he co-founded the Smith Westerns, and for good or ill the experience was a major part of his early adulthood. After the Smith Westerns broke up in 2014, Omori appears to have made a conscious effort to separate himself from the band's punk-meets-glam attack. On his solo debut, 2016's New Misery, Omori has embraced an evocative and graceful brand of pop music that's informed by youth and experience at once. Suggesting a midpoint between the sublime early work of the Chamber Strings and the damaged beauty of Big Star's Third, New Misery fuses breathy pop melodies and lyrics that often confront life's disappointments. The tone of the album sometimes seems like therapy as much as art, but if this work is personal, Omori has also found a way to make it accessible, at least to indie pop fans. Omori performed most of this music himself, with a valuable assist from lead guitarist James Richardson and drummer Loren Humphrey. The results sometimes have the home-brewed quality of a bedroom four-track project, but that also adds to the music's potent atmosphere. Omori and producer Shane Stoneback have made canny use of synthesizer sweeps and melodies that somehow soar even in minor keys, as well as Omori's youthful vocal timbre. New Misery is a far cry from what Omori brought us in the Smith Westerns (beyond sharing a fascination with '70s music), but at its best, it's similarly accomplished. It's impressive that Omori has been able to conjure two musical personalities this distinct at the age of 26. New Misery may be uneven, but it confirms Cullen Omori has a musical future one might not have expected based on the Smith Westerns.
AllMusic Review by Mark Deming