One of my favorite musical moments of the year comes at the beginning of “To Feel Your Best,” the final track on Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s The Kid. After about 25 seconds of bubbling synths, lyricless vocals and cosmic swoops, there is suddenly the sound of horses galloping. It only lasts a few seconds, but it’s one of many little moments on this album that make me think it’s one of the most special accomplishments in years. It represents not only the merging of nature and electronics that is such a part of Smith’s music, but also the journey of life that The Kid describes as the clomp-clomp-clomp of the hooves signifies moving constantly forward.
That sound of the horses galloping says so much without needing any words, and it illustrates the imagination and attention to detail that makes The Kid such a vibrant album. It’s hard enough to tell a story with songs, but to do it almost entirely through sound like Smith does, and to have this much feeling and meaning in it is a monumental feat. It’s made even more incredible by how overambitious and trite its concept sounds on paper: “the story of a life.” I would forgive anyone for assuming it’s impossible to execute on a 51-minute album. But Smith pulls it off, and does it in a way that feels personal while also being completely universal.
What really resonates with me about this album is how its sound has this kid spirit in it — I kept thinking it sounded like what would happen if you let a really smart eight-year-old loose in the orchestra room and they started playing with all the instruments. It is hard to say that without it sounding derisive of Smith’s abilities, but it is meant as a high compliment: her music captures the inner child all of us have, and for an adult to be able to pull that out through her music while still making it sound beautiful and sophisticated is an intricate balancing act. It’s why I loved all of its whimsical instrumental asides, like the opening of “A Kid,” which gradually piles synth sounds on top of its playful beat.
I find that kid feeling especially powerful in 2017, where the political situation and the internet has turned every day into a deluge of bad news as we’re made all-too aware of every bad thing that is happening in the world at any given time. What I’ll remember a lot about this year is that feeling of wanting to disconnect from the constant news cycle, but also feeling like putting my head in the sand and embracing ignorance is even worse. The Kid really taps into a nostalgic feeling, a desire to see the world through unjaded eyes and appreciate life’s beauty, and does it in a way that is wholly original.
And far from preaching ignorance or naivety, The Kid celebrates the process of learning, questioning the world and seeking self-improvement. As its themes move past early childhood into young adulthood, its sound gains a more cerebral touch while also maintaining its playfulness. The most lyrically-driven of these songs, “In a World, but Not of the World,” describes a process I relate to heavily, of finding joy in questioning and proving myself wrong, especially after growing up with certain beliefs I was certain were true. Intellectualism has never sounded this joyous.
Now in my late 20s (which is insane to think about, but let’s move on), I’m still mired in this likely endless process of self-improvement, of trying to do a little better each day and hopefully at some point become decent at life. It’s very internal and solipsistic, and not the kind of thing that would seem to lend itself to music. “Who I Am & Why I Am Where I Am” is a song where barely anything “happens,” as its just some repeated synth noodling with bird sounds over it for five minutes, but it has that feeling of contemplation and pondering the self that describes a lot of how my 20s have been.
Songs like this are also crucial to the pacing of The Kid, which excels at all the minutiae I love to overanalyze in music. Smith shows a cinematic understanding of rising and falling action, separating some of the album’s more powerful moments with ambient exercises that strengthen their impact through context. In this way, The Kid mimics the ebbs and flows of life, which isn’t just a series of constant thrilling events. There are usually long stretches where not a lot is happening (but it’s still sort of interesting in its way), then something major happens, then not much happens again for awhile. In this case, “Who I Am & Why I Am Where I Am” sets up the final three songs, which form an awe-inspiring conclusion.
Which I guess brings me back to “To Feel Your Best” and those horses. After a lot of time spent thinking about the self, the end of The Kid is about making room for someone else, and “To Feel Your Best” is about losing them. What I really love about about this ending is that it is so much more powerful and moving because of everything that came before it. We know how life always ends, but this album creates a relatable journey through childhood that gives this song maximum impact. It’s also ambiguous in the best way: the idea that we start and end life alone after all that growing can be depressing, but I suspect it is meant more in a Zen-like spiritual sense — Smith sees a certain beauty in this universal beginning and end that almost all of us share.
I am honestly a little uncomfortable with how effusively I’m praising The Kid, but I really think this album is going to stick with me for a long time. There is even more I want to gush about: how it’s an actual album that is strengthened from playing it start to finish, how it challenges the listener with its sound and lets you draw your own conclusions, how Smith as an artist is learning and growing in parallel with her story. I imagine its avant-garde (maybe even New Age) style won’t appeal to everyone, but adventurous listeners owe it to themselves to go on this journey that Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith has created.