Few 21-year-olds can claim to have enjoyed a pop career as long as Smith’s, which is now in its 10th year. Certainly, few can claim to have covered so much musical ground. Even leaving aside her brief period as a tween pop idol, Smith has moved from leftfield alt-R&B to experimental bedroom pop, from Alanis Morissette-inspired singer-songwriter confessionals to shoegazy psychedelia. By the time she released 2021’s pop-punk leaning Lately I Feel Everything, she was at a point where she could appear on the cover of Kerrang! discussing the influence of Lamb of God and sludge metal heroes Crowbar.
Whether you view all this as Bowie-esque shapeshifting, a reflection of the post-genre pop world engendered by streaming or the dabbling dilettantism you might expect from the child of Hollywood superstars is up to you. What’s beyond debate is Smith’s ability to make music that resonates with a young audience. No matter that her exploratory debut album Ardipithecus got a muted reception: its track Wait a Minute! inspired an online dance challenge, and has been streamed 765m times on Spotify. Likewise, 2019’s woozy Time Machine found a niche soundtracking TikTok videos that dreamily salivate over #hotbois, be they Harry Styles or Chris Hemsworth; 2020’s Pixies-ish Meet Me at Our Spot was the perfect accompaniment to videos about what you did in the summer and/or anime clips; and 2021’s Transparent Soul resonated with emo types lipsyncing, more anime clips, and “Hey guys check this out I crocheted my own bucket hat!!!”-core. There are marketing departments spending millions trying to work out how to provoke dance trends, get emo types lipsyncing and indeed reach the world’s #hotboi cineastes and bucket-hat crocheters. Smith seems to keep doing it without breaking a sweat.
You wouldn’t bet against something similar happening to a track from Coping Mechanism, which toughens up her sound. There is indeed the frequent hint of the circle pit and the battlejacket about its approach: a downtuned heaviness to Ur a Stranger’s riffs; the climax of Maybe It’s My Fault, powered by a double kick drum beat, is topped with screamo vocals. But it’s less generically streamlined than Smith’s previous albums, which clearly set out their stall – psychedelic cover art for the shoegazey Willow, guest slots from Blink 182’s Travis Barker and Avril Lavigne on Lately I Feel Everything – and stuck to whatever style was currently turning her head. Here, the shards of metal coexist with operatic harmonies that alternately evoke goth-rock and Queen, that wobbling, lo-fi guitar sound that gives the impression it’s been recorded on an old cassette, ska-punk, slackly strummed guitars that recall early 90s US alt-rock and a guest appearance from defiantly avant garde electronic experimentalist Yves Tumor. All this, it’s worth noting, is crammed on to an 11-track album that lasts less than half an hour.
It could be a mess, but it really isn’t. The production turns the bricolage of styles into a powerfully dynamic record. Multiple genres are packed tightly into songs that seldom break the three-minute barrier, giving Coping Mechanism an appealing sense of restless urgency. The dynamic shifts hang together because of Smith herself. She has a powerful and engaging voice that can move with apparent ease from a straightforwardly pretty pop style to a head-turning full-throttle howl, as on closer Batshit!
Moreover, if you were looking for a very prosaic reason for her success, you might alight on the fact that she’s an exceptionally tidy songwriter. Her lyrics deal in shouty angst, clunky poetry that reads like it’s been ripped from a secret journal – “the wind in the trees whispering mathematics … refract the wisdom to heal the abyss” – and self-help homilies of the I Don’t Know Who Needs To Hear This But variety. Relatable for their target market, they probably won’t detain you long if you’re old enough to drive yourself places rather than rely on your parents for lifts. But her melodies are both strong enough to stick in your head and anomalous enough to never feel bland. On Curious/Furious, she pulls off the kind of instantly appealing tune people pay vast sums to vast teams of Swedish writers for. On Maybe It’s My Fault, she matches the sonic twists with a melody that doesn’t go where you expect but maintains a tight grip on your attention.
You could paint Coping Mechanism as a cynical exercise in exploiting how music is disseminated these days: the science of what makes songs TikTok friendly is hardly an exact one, but it’s generally accepted that big surges and sudden drops help, handy for the moment when your crocheted bucket hat is revealed in all its glory. But, crucially, it doesn’t sound cynical: it’s too idiosyncratic and eclectic. Instead, it sounds confident: the work of someone who knows their seemingly impulsive approach to rock and pop fits the current landscape and who’s taken that as carte blanche to do what they want. It’s a confidence that never feels misplaced.