I don’t mean to say that Cameron Smith sounds like Bruce Springsteen, but the Fort Worth singer-songwriter’s new single reminds me of a few of the Boss’ biggest hits from his particularly melancholy trio of albums of the late ’70s/early ’80s. Springsteen’s “Badlands,” “The River,” and “Atlantic City” all feature characters who have had their dreams burned and buried by the bait-and-switch promises of postwar America, for whom a life of mediocrity was the best they could hope for in the wake of Vietnam, Watergate, and mile-long lines at the gas pump. For the people in “Poison Summer,” even mediocrity seems out of reach. Whether they’ve been laid low by America’s toxic political climate, COVID, or addiction, they’re stuck in a societal fabric that’s threadbare and worn where it isn’t already ripped, and every route forward looks like a tightrope with no net below. It’s bleakness borne of increasingly diminishing options. Doesn’t that sound nice?
It does the way Smith sings it, for despite all his burned-out ennui, the man is a font of good melodies, and sung here in a tone that sounds almost exasperated, they evince the sort of beautiful heartache that makes the Smashing Pumpkins’ “1979” hit so hard when you’re an adult. Yet instead of nostalgia for Gen X’s collective, faded-family-photo childhoods, Smith would be content if the world could just take a 10-minute break from collapsing in on itself.
Recorded and mixed in January by John Pedigo (The O’s, 40 Acre Mule) at Modern Electric Sound Recorders in Dallas and mastered by Jordan Richardson (Son of Stan, Oil Boom) at Electric Barryland in Justin, “Poison Summer” came out of a period in September 2021 when Smith was attempting to write a song a day.
“It’s very much from a time when I was slowing down and thinking about what to make of the world after all the big bad in the early 2020s,” he said. “Some of the songs wound up being more about peace and tranquil acceptance in the melancholy of nature. Others wound up about the inner battles of seeking that refuge in an unforgiving environment.”
In “Poison Summer,” it’s the battles that never seem to end that are bumming Smith out the most. As the song nears its end, Smith lays into his hook like he’s kicking the bumper off a car that’s let him down too many times. You can feel his frustration simmering every time he sings the refrain. “You got a problem with the problem again / Poison summer under your skin.” It’s like being pressed into the gunwales of a ship that’s sinking because it’s on fire, yet what seems to be the most tragic part is at the end, when Smith repeats that he’s “lost in time.”
“What was on my mind a lot then was this idea that we’re the new lost generation,” Smith said. “For folks like my teenager, they had an entire formative experience disrupted. Their high school social lives [were] just totally fucking sandbagged, and then there was just all the personal loss through death, not only from the virus but from addiction and isolation.”
It’s the kind of song you want to hear when you see another week of triple digits on the horizon or when you find making rent is even harder than it was last month or feel bad because you’re tired of being outraged — whether it be at a rigged justice system or a friend who can’t or won’t let go of destructive habits.
Smith’s weary melody and jangly guitar lopes along a mid-tempo groove courtesy of drummer Nate Wedan (Somebody’s Darling) and bassist (and regular Weekly contributor) Patrick Higgins (Understudied, O.Deletron, The Spiral Sound), and keys and vocal harmonies by Katie Robertson (Genini, Chucho) lend the song some atmospheric sparkle. You can certainly hear Smith’s affinity for songwriters like David Berman and Phoebe Bridgers in the track’s plaintive chord progression.
Smith said he’s going to track “some sort of album” in October at Blackstone Recording Studio in East Fort Worth with engineer Mark Randall. Whether or not he includes this with that collection remains to be seen, but if it’s a harbinger of Smith entering his “beautiful bummer” period, we’re here for it. If the world is running on fumes and our friends and family keep checking out, at least there’s a songwriter who knows how to articulate our exhaustion so artfully.