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Cullen Omori - The Diet Music Album Reviews

The former Smith Westerns member’s second album represents a return to his core strengths: crystalline, cosmically ornate melodies and wryly clear-eyed lyrics.

Cullen Omori figured his shit out quickly. The difference between those first two Smith Westerns albums—the no-fi garage-pop slop of 2009’s self-titled effort versus with the widescreen glam of 2011’s Dye It Blonde—felt like more than a just a typical case of a young band making a dramatic leap to avoid the sophomore slump. It was more a like a detuned TV suddenly being kicked into sharp focus: The surface fuzz fell away, revealing the craft and confidence that was always there.

On Dye It Blonde, we caught our first glimpse of Omori in his natural habitat: a never-ending summer of ’73 soundtracked by Marc Bolan’s saddest songs and George Harrison’s sweetest licks. And as we’ve seen in everything he’s released since, it’s a place he’s never wanted to leave. Sure, the Smith Westerns’ 2013 swan song, Soft Will, upped the prog factor, while Omori’s 2016 solo debut, New Misery, added some modernist pop touches, but he’s remained comfortably floating at the same cruising altitude.

These days, Omori is seemingly drawn to albums like All Things Must Pass and The Slider for more than just their magical melodies and tasty guitar tones. In the early 1970s, those records formed the collective soundtrack to the post-hippie hangover, their dreamily strung-out quality reflecting the mindset of a new generation that felt like it had missed the party and was left to clean up the mess. It’s a deeply disillusioned feeling to which Omori could no doubt relate in the wake of the Smith Westerns’ unceremonious demise: In interviews, the singer-guitarist has been more candid than most about the indignities of being a former indie-rock darling forced to return to day-job drudgery.

But he’s also been able to make the most of his mundane circumstances—he claims New Misery was inspired by the Top 40 pop music he heard piped into the hospital where he spent his days cleaning medical supplies. Hospitals also factor into The Diet’s origin story, in which Omori found himself seeking medical attention—for getting clean, if not for the subsequent existential crisis. “I was sitting in a hospital detox center facing out on Lake Michigan in Chicago,” he recounts, “and literally just a few miles south, Lollapalooza, an event I’ve played twice and had many peers at, was happening without me.” The Diet isn’t the sort of world-beating, over-the-top comeback effort that’s going to transform Omori into the king of Grant Park (especially at a time when even Jack White is struggling to justify his headliner status). But it’s the most consistently satisfying front-to-back record Omori’s been a part of since Dye It Blonde, a reset that realigns him with his core strengths—namely, his flair for crafting songs that are cosmically ornate yet humbly down-to-earth.

You can hear the rebirth process kick in during the opening seconds of “Four Years,” where the song’s melancholic guitar chime bubbles up from an oceanic swirl to face the bright rays of the sun, as if Omori were emerging from some sort of soul-cleansing ritual. It also feels like an effort to shake off the glossy embellishments that proved to be distractions on New Misery. Under the guidance of LA-based producer Taylor Locke, “Four Years,” and the 11 songs that follow, place the focus where it should be: on the tension between Omori’s crystalline, clear-eyed melodies and his stinging, self-effacing lyricism. As it coasts to its swooning chorus, “Four Years” reveals itself to be an ebullient declaration of devotion from someone easily driven to distraction: “You do so many things, and I love you for it,” Omori sings in helium harmony with himself, before adding: “but I usually forget.”

Ten years into the game, Omori has essentially graduated from the garage to the kitchen, playing fly-on-the-wall to domestic lives, or dreaming of the one he could’ve had: “All by Yourself” is a wistful acoustic requiem for the one who got away—and the new baby in her life that all but extinguishes any possibility of future rekindling. But even the album’s purest expressions of contentment are laced with a sardonic aftertaste—“Happiness Reigns” might be the most joyful, carefree pop song in the Omori canon since Dye It Blonde’s “Weekend,” but it’s still one where the giddy kids he imagines for himself and his partner frolic among “flowers of uranium.”

The Diet would benefit from more breezily subversive sing-alongs like that—as the album rolls on, Omori’s predilection for mid-tempo, mid-period Oasis starts to take over, and a certain uniformity of style, scale, and seriousness sets in. (One great exception is “Millennial Geishas,” which finds the half-Japanese Omori cheekily riffing on Asian stereotypes—“I want to enter your dragon/Want to jump on your bandwagon”—en route to a disarming, stargazing chorus.) But on the closing “A Real You,” Omori liberates himself from any obvious idolatry to fashion a winsome baroque-folk lullaby that achieves liftoff without shooting for the cheap seats. Fittingly, it’s a love song about not needing all that much to get by: “I choose the simple things with you, both of us only use cable or pay-per-view,” Omori sings, making The Diet a rallying point for analog romantics in a Netflix ‘n’ chill kinda world.

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