Better than: Triple-breasted Mars broads and lamely realist sad-sacks.
Their love nearly ended in a pool of green blood. The sad-eyed cyborg lady of the spacelands was married, it turned out. As our narrator, the Earth-man suitor, tried to steal her away, her jealous cyborg husband shot her. She bled slime. She somehow survived. But the newfound romance wasn't to be. "We really tried, you know? We tried to make a life," Sonny Smith sings on "Green Blood," the last and weirdest track on his band's latest, weirdest, and yet remarkably affecting new album, Antenna to the Afterworld. "But we're so different, such different types."
This isn't quite science-fiction. Through his music, writing, and art — and projects, like last year's live spoken-word performance Sees All Knows All, that combine media — San Francisco's Smith has become a master of the out-there metaphor, of using bluntly unreal situations and characters to evoke very real feelings. His latest album with long-running band the Sunsets deals in fortune-tellers, aliens, and a monster of a woman who lures him to a bed of nails. (There's also some cutting realism, as in "Girl on the Street.") But instead of employing science-fictional elements to defy human gravity, Smith uses them to point at inescapable qualities of the Earthling condition: Loneliness, failing at love, the shock of a friend's sudden death. In "Green Blood," it isn't the jealous cyborg husband who kills the romance — it's their differences as people (or, okay, person and android). When Smith tells the story in his charcoal baritone, his crush sounds as quotidian as blue California sky on a May afternoon: "She was amazing, so intelligent, so beautiful, fun — all those things."
There is always a price of entry to Smith's work. On his previous album with the Sunsets, Longtime Companion, that was country music: Beneath the pedal-steel guitars and tear-in-beer melodies was a piercingly sad, and sometimes funny, break-up album. Smith and the Sunsets have returned to their vintage rock 'n' roll sound on Antenna, but the hurdle here is unrepentant weirdness. The songs are worth suspending disbelief for. On "Palmreader," Smith hints at a lifetime's worth of trouble in a few casual lines: "My life line is fucked up, too/It's covered in scabs and glue/Seems like it's split, split into two/One goes there, one stays here... with you." In three breezy minutes of investigation into the paranormal, Smith gets a moving point across: If even a professional psychic can't make sense of your raw flesh, you're holding some real problems indeed.