As consumers of music we are often guilty of arriving incredibly late to the musical process, blissfully unaware of the glut hard work, strain and stress that went into creating that collection of tracks. However, as reviewers it is our place to consider these artistic back-stories for context, whilst never letting them overshadow the end product. I mention this, because Great Lakes is an album which almost never came to existence. In 2009 John Smith suffered from a two year bout of crippling writer's block, becoming increasingly frustrated at his inability to pursue his musical endeavours.
After considering abandoning songwriting altogether, Smith began working with Dennis Ellsworth and legendary American producer John Henry (Lisa Hannigan, Loudon Wainwright). With these accomplished songwriters by his side in late 2011 Smith began to rebuild his artistic identity, and put together the pieces which would eventually become Great Lakes.
Unfortunately, in spite of its triumph over adversity back story, Great Lakes falls short of its potential. From start to finish it is an album packed full of well constructed folk songs, stripped back production (it was recorded in a chapel in North Wales), and accomplished musicianship; however, it is misses out on that deeply human element, that roughness, that texture, that tone which separates an album from the wealth of prosaic folk records released each year, to one which is genuinely moving. On 'Salty and Sweet', there is a pedestrian air to its rhythm, giving the song a paint-by-numbers feel, and meaning that it never really challenges the listener. Similarly 'Away We Go' is a meandering track which paces on without ever truly grasping the listener's attention. A notable flaw in Smith's songwriting is its lack of the unexpected, and shortly into several tracks on the record you feel able to predict the song's continued direction (and for the most part you'd be right). Lyrically his songs lack sufficient differentiation, and he is occasionally guilty of overusing similes and metaphors; with water being continually chosen as an analogy for love.
In spite of the album's weaker moments there are some which are genuinely affecting. 'Forever To The End' is a beautifully stunted ballad about hitting the road, last goodbyes and things left unsaid. Another highlight lies in the rousing title track, 'Great Lakes'. After a downbeat opening verse the song explodes into life with full band percussion, soaring strings, and the lyric, "love is nothing, love is everything, it's never in between" delivered with exceptional conviction. 'Lungs' is an equally touching moment, fragile in its makeup with its origins lying in the wake of a particularly distressing breakup.
In truth this is an album of mixed fortunes. Often it displays admiral craft and musicianship, however, it falls down is in its lack of ambition and, in truth, a lack of flaws. In a statement regarding Great Lakes Smith said that he wanted to move away from his previous two records stating that they were "too dense" and "too inaccessible" - opting for the broader aim, to write "songs that other people will want to sing along to." In attempting to make an album which is universal - smooth in tone, non-offensive and safe lyrically - he has constructed an album which is accessible to all, but will unlikely have a profound or lasting effect on many.