Childhood is a subject rarely discussed in music, for obvious reasons: musicians are adults who are writing about their current grown-up exploits, and it’s sometimes hard to articulate the feelings we all had as little kids in music. Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s newest album, The Kid, is inspired by the four stages in the Hindu dharma, and it instantly took me back to those feelings of childhood. Its sound is a perfect reflection of the young mind: full of wonder, imagination, and possibility.
Smith is a prolific composer whose work I was largely unfamiliar with before this album. She’s known for using fluttering synths to make music that is light and airy, but also a little psychedelic. The Kid incorporates a wide instrumental palette; her trademark synths are joined by flutes and horns which, along with her layered vocals and off-kilter rhythms, give this album a playful toybox-like feeling. This suits the album’s early themes of learning, being a kid, and discovering the world and your place in it. One of the lyrics on the second track, “An Intention,” sums up how awe-inspiring the process of discovery can be: “I feel everything at the same time.”
A really smart aspect of this album is how the childhood themes of discovery and wonderment are paralleled by Smith, who is using her modular synthesizers as her own vehicle for exploration. Her vocals and lyrics are much more pronounced on The Kid than in her previous work, so you hear her growing as an artist by learning to make music in a different way, mirroring the album’s concept of a kid who starts as nothing but a name before growing into a complete person. This also tracks with her career: she learned to play her Buchla synthesizers after being lent them by a neighbor and now seems to have complete mastery over her tools. While this could easily feel like a detached artist assembling sounds, Smith feels like she is a part of this music in a very primal way because she has that connection with her instruments.
Eventually, The Kid moves past the early stages of childhood into songs with more existential themes that are reminiscent of adolescence. “In a World, but Not of the World” is my favorite of these tracks; backed by a marching beat and twinkly synths, Smith’s lyrics remind me of when I was a teen who enjoyed questioning things I learned in childhood: “I love it when I think I know something and then I find out it’s the opposite. I’m in love with contradicting myself.” The whole album builds up to the final tracks, where the inherently selfish process of discovering the self is replaced by caring for someone else. “I Will Make Room For You” describes finding love or companionship, but in the same brainy terms as the rest of the album: “All I want is to live my whole life for a chance to explore the unknown with you.”
Possibly the highlight of The Kid is its poignant closing track, “To Feel Your Best,” which deals with the fallout of caring for somebody and knowing that eventually they’ll be gone. It’s a melancholy ending that feels like even more of a gut-punch given the tracks that came before, as all the learning and growing eventually leads to heartbreak. However, there is also a spiritual, peaceful element to the song. I think Smith recognizes there is some beauty to the life cycle and how everyone has different experiences that bring us to the same place.
This album is an incredible balancing act, the work of a composer who has put thought into every note. It is smart without being pretentious, experimental and quirky without being too obscure, emotional without being sentimental. It took me back to when I was younger without being nostalgic and simply relying on recycled sounds. As insane as this is to say, Smith made an album that captures life.