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The sound and imagery of the 20th release by Chris SmitherAll About the Bones, (release date: May 3, 2024 on Signature Sounds/Mighty Albert, distributed by Redeye) is as elemental as the inky black shadows cast by a shockingly bright moon. The listener is welcomed into some gothic mansion on an imaginary New Orleans street, and there in the lamplit parlor confronts the band, a minimalist skeleton crew: Smither’s inimitable propulsive guitar and rumbling baritone are joined seamlessly to producer David Goodrich’s carpetbag of instruments, Zak Trojano’s rock-steady, primal drumming, BettySoo’s diaphanous harmony vocals, and the flat, mournful flood of Jazz legend Chris Cheek’s saxophone.

Recorded at Sonelab Studios in Easthampton MA by Justin Pizzoferrato (Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr., the Hold Steady) All About the Bones has a feel that is somehow baroque and austere at once. Smither and his longtime producer David Goodrich have been refining their musical conversation for decades, both in the studio and onstage, and by now, their bond verges on the telepathic. Goodrich plays on nearly every track. His sound is by now so translucent that it seems to function as a swath of silence, allowing the songs to burn like ciphers in the crackling air.

And oh, the songs on All About the Bones. Chris Smither, after six decades of sharpening his knife as a songwriter, can at this point open damn near anything with a flick of his wrist. God and the Devil are opened here. Mortality is too. Politics, consciousness, renewal, family, vulnerability, surrender… Smither has sat with these topics like so many Zen koans, for so long, that every line is a pearl. The title track, “All About the Bones,” kicks the record off with “Consider your high station/ think about your fame. All of your creation depended on your frame.” Irony, wit, the double meaning of “depended”… each verse is a master class in songwriting.

Yet the stark, elemental sage always has a twinkle in his eye, a light touch at your elbow as he guides you along. From the wickedly funny defense of the Adversary in “If Not for the Devil” to the unsentimental open-heartedness of “Still Believe in You,” he is as human as we all long to be. The disjointed imagery of “In the Bardo” and the dystopian mirror of “Close the Deal” find Smither unflinchingly staring down the mortality of both individuals and republics, and yet he is at peace, among loved ones in his cover of Eliza Gilkyson’s “Calm Before the Storm,” and turning his gaze to the future in “Completion”. He sends us on our merry way, startled, dazzled, unsettled and then comforted, with Tom Petty’s “Time to Move On.”

As noted by the New York Times, Rolling Stone, MOJO, NPR, and others, in the decades of travels to All About the Bones, Chris Smither has gone from up-and-comer to journeyman to veteran to icon, and yet the whole time his path has more closely resembled Joseph Campbell’s “Hero with a Thousand Faces”- an unblinking, fearless trek into the depths of struggle and revelation, and a return back to the land of the living, to share the hard-won treasures found along the way. His restlessness is long gone, and his eyes are fixed “where the moonlight falls on some never-to-be-seen horizon” (“Still Believe in You”). The light given off from his music casts our own lives into a sublime and welcome clarity.

All About the Bonesthe new record by Chris Smither (Signature Sounds/Mighty Albert, out May 3, 2024).