High proves that Caitlyn Smith elevates contemporary country.
The narrative around Caitlyn Smith — that she kicked around Nashville for several years as a highly regarded hired-gun songwriter for mainstream artists she could sing under the table on any given day — isn’t an uncommon one. Hell, country music has an entire cottage industry of women whose careers have shared that particular arc. In the ‘90s, that would account for the Holy Trinity of Matraca Berg, Gretchen Peters, and Kim Richey; more recently, Smith falls along the same axis as Lori McKenna and Natalie Hemby. It’s not a terrible way to carve out a respectable and award-winning career, but High, Smith’s third album, makes it clear that she’s still gunning for the commercial success that has, to date, eluded her. That is in no way a referendum on the album’s quality or to suggest that Smith has somehow compromised her artistry here. High is a lovely and often evocative pop-country album that showcases Smith’s powerhouse singing and her gifts for melodies that take unexpected detours without ever becoming inaccessible.
More so than its two predecessors, High is produced with an ear for what’s current on radio playlists — the double-time chorus on “Downtown Baby” wouldn’t sound at all out-of-place between Kane Brown and Maren Morris, while easy-going arrangement on “Dreamin’s Free” strikes the same tone as “I Can’t,” a Top 40 hit with Old Dominion, which closed out her previous album era with at least a bit of commercial momentum. The songs on High are better-written than was that track, with an overall theme of attempting to find emotional regulation in turbulent times. The title track — originally cut in a more rock-oriented style by co-writer Miley Cyrus on her 2020 album, Plastic Hearts — is easily the set’s most complex, capitalizing on the easy power of Smith’s voice to create dramatic shifts in dynamics that, structurally, bolster the song’s narrative of feeling unmoored. Smith belts and growls her way through one of the year’s most riveting singles; truly, few of her contemporaries on country radio could match her torrid delivery of the song’s sweeping chorus. Whether or not radio will actually bite on any of these songs remains to be seen — “Downtown Baby” has been struggling to gain traction — but High proves that Caitlyn Smith elevates contemporary country.
Published as part of Album Roundup — April 2022 | Part 2.