Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s new album, The Mosaic of Transformation, has the unenviable task of following, no joke, what I consider one of the greatest albums of all time in 2017’s The Kid. It will take some restraint not to turn this post into more gushing about that work, but suffice to say, it had a mix of childhood wonder and sophisticated pop songwriting that is shared only by a select few artists who I worship (Björk, Trish Keenan, that’s about it). Just to up the difficulty further, what made that album so remarkable was its execution of about the most ambitious concept you could try in music, which is telling the story of life. Where are you supposed to go after you’ve made an album that already captured everything? Such an album necessitates regrouping and trying something on a smaller scale, and that’s what Smith has done here, with a shorter series of songs focused around energy and the human body.
It’s a fitting theme for Smith, whose songs are made up of all these tiny interconnecting parts that combine to function against all reason. While on the surface her modular synthesizer noodling resembles new age background music (she did release an album specifically for yoga and meditation last year), it also appeals to obsessive types who enjoy being overwhelmed by little flourishes and touches that can be analyzed forever. One of the cool effects of The Kid was how all of her sounds that could feel random took on deeper meaning because of their connection to a narrative. A simple droning note and bird calls on “Who I Am & Why I Am Where I Am” became a moving piece on idly contemplating the self; the rapid percussion on “A Kid” brought to mind early childhood exploration and discovery as Smith seemed to be playing in her own musical sandbox. On The Mosaic of Transformation, her focus shifts from the evolving mind to something more physical; her bubbling, fluttery synth sounds now make me think of molecules or cells, and every song bursts with these little fragments of energy.
While Smith’s work recently has had her embracing more pop structure and melody, on The Mosaic of Transformation she dials back her voice and creates free-flowing compositions that use repetition to soothe the listener. The few lyrics on the album more resemble mantras than traditional storytelling, such as the refrain of “be kind to one another/we’re calming together” on “Remember.” The instrumental “Carrying Gravity” gradually piles on layers of strings and other sounds over its drones, creating a peaceful symphony of movement. The long closing track, “Expanding Electricity,” is the album’s densest song (and maybe the busiest of all of Smith’s songs in general, which is saying something), as all of the energy built up in the previous songs comes together to form a harmonious whole.
What’s missing for me on the album is any kind of narrative thread connecting the songs, which was such an important part of The Kid transcending its blippity-bloopity trappings. There is a high floor to Smith’s music because it is so creative and contains such thought and spirit, but without a central narrative, the multitude of sounds and flourishes start to lose meaning and it fades into the kind of background music that she expertly avoided on her previous two albums. The Mosaic of Transformation is also being released at a somewhat inopportune time: while its calming, peaceful sound provides some solace in this insane year, it also at times starts to border on being cloying and naïve, feelings that The Kid was able to harness because they fit its themes of wide-eyed childhood innocence. Smith’s unbounded positivity is admirable, but I’m beginning to wonder if there is a tipping point where it becomes too detached from the real world to be a valuable statement.
Those critiques come off harsher than I probably intend, only because I know how powerful Smith’s music is when she is able to connect her fascinating sounds with a fruitful story. She is still an expert at channeling her distinct charisma through her electronic tools, and this is another album that is identifiably hers and exists in its own musical space separate from what everyone else is doing. Just that alone makes this worthwhile in a blobby indie landscape that has fewer and fewer truly original voices. The Mosaic of Transformation is a step back for her, but it’s one that probably needed to happen. It still succeeds on its own terms and offers some serenity at a time when we could all use it.