Cullen Omori

From the outside perspective, I don’t know if you can accurately capture the difficulties an artist’s career post-band breakup. The prototypical analysis of an artist branching out from a former band tends to fall into one of three categories: the new act/artist is trying way too hard to distance themselves from the past, the new act/artist sounds so similar to what they’ve done in the past that you wonder why they didn’t just stay in the group, and/or the new act/artist is playing it safe. These rules don’t really apply when you go beyond any surface value of what has been created, but they sure do make for easy building blocks when the editors come calling.

So I imagine Cullun Omori has caused some handwringing amongst the old guard over the past few weeks. He, like several artists of the modern musical world, has branched out on his own since Smith Westerns called it a day in 2014. Like those artists, there’s no way you can listen to his newest work and apply those tropes. Are there elements of Smith Westerns? Oh yeah. Does Omori veer way off from those? Definitely at times. Is he playing it safe? Not at all. And in the end, you know what? New Misery is, to overly simplify it, really, really good.

If there’s one constant in the album, it’s that Omori possesses an uncanny amount of both acute self-awareness and reflection of the outside world. He also refuses to accept complacency or any form of past praise as a free pass to his solo career. “No Big Deal” opens the album like a symphony’s final tuning before becoming a spacious tracks that is accessible in spite of the textured layers to each moment. It should go ahead and be stated that Loren Humphrey’s drums throughout No Misery are simply phenomenal. They straighten your spine and bring force to each environment, and they do this from the first track. It’s also clear that, in spite of his admitted doubts, Omori is looking to make a clear statement of poise, one that he’s willing to go broke for in process.

So many tracks hold the line between doubt and ambition. It’s this sense of introspective questioning that lifts the album to its full potential though. The general feeling is that Omori had the attitude of “let’s try it a little larger” instead of “maybe we should tone it down.” Even the Sunday stroll of “Two Kinds,” which seems like coming across a baptism on the beach, builds momentum. There’s no question the narrative of “Hey Girl” is a personal one – finding your footing as a young adult who’s seeking to take the next step. Everyone has some kind of expectation – family, friends, significant others, but you’re ready to grow up – or at least you think you are.

Relationships, of course, are a bit unstable in this type of world. “And Yet the World Still Turns” captures the ground on which a lot of couples are very carefully walking. Loves that are dangerous, and generally bad for one’s health, are brought to light on “Poison Dart.” Hurt won’t stop him; there’s just something too alluring about it all. Maybe the most relatable track is “Synthetic Romance.” Presented with an ominous overcast, he’s just trying to take the right steps in making sure the love given isn’t taken for granted. Euphoria exists because the affection is present while the fear of screwing it all up looms large.

But the highs? It’s hard to not see “Cinnamon” as a form of liberation tune in the way it exudes power synth. A complete exhibition in freeing yourself, the single makes it feel like the sunset is never going to end. And when the piano of “Be a Man” bleeds into “LOM”? Well, it’s immediately wheeled off stage in favor of high ampage. You can feel something turning ever so slightly as Omori says “feels like hope.”

While the situation may not alleviate itself, you get a sense this has been good therapy. The self-titled album closer turns the lights off while the existential struggle is ongoing, but everything wasn’t expected to be fixed in the end anyway. Misery is going to be there. You just have to figure out how to deal with it.

New Misery is available now on all formats at the Sub Pop Records store. Joey Smith