Small Sins Turn Back the Clock on 'Volume II'
Published Feb 11, 2021Getting older sucks. You're slower, you feel out of touch, hangovers hurt more and linger longer. Doors also start closing. Those things you've put off over the years start to become "What could have been?" instead of "What could be?"
There are plenty of ways to deal with this last point. Yet, Thomas D'Arcy appears to have found one of the most productive and creatively rewarding paths. D'Arcy has framed Volume II, the first new material from his band Small Sins in over a decade, as a do-over of sorts, a chance to rekindle the creative juices of his youth with the life experience of person sliding into middle-age. As Faces famously put it, "I wish that I knew what I know now, when I was younger."
D'Arcy, Small Sins' mastermind and sole constant member, emerged at a juncture when the shackles of what was acceptable in indie rock were coming off. Once verboten, synths and other electronic aids were suddenly on the table. In 2006, Small Sins' self-titled debut captured this moment with an intimate and effervescent blend of digital and analogue, buoyed by some seriously hooky songs. A deal with Astralwerks gave their follow-up, 2007's Mood Swings, a massive platform. Yet despite some great tunes, it captured neither a wider audience nor the casual breeziness of its predecessor. A final Small Sins album, Pot Calls Kettle Black, emerged in 2010 before D'Arcy moved into a successful career as a producer.
Clearly, the band's denouement has never sat well with D'Arcy. He's cast Volume II as the spiritual successor to Small Sins' debut, using the same gear and techniques that he did a decade-and-a-half ago, in hopes of regaining some of that ineffable je ne sais quoi that makes so many great albums great.
The lamenting "I Used to be a Better Man" captures this energy best. "Everything was for sale, so we sold all we had, everything I held dear, every promise I made," he sings over the album's catchiest synth riff, re-adopting the hushed whisper that lent Small Sins' debut much of its intimacy. D'Arcy's matter-of-fact tone can be jarring, and on songs like "I Don't Care" and "End of the World," can, at first blush, come across as self-loathing. It's hard to tell if he's singing to himself or a partner. But that same casual delivery helps carry the hope and optimism of songs like the bubbly "Together Again" and the pulsing "Andre."
Volume II's elevator pitch — "What if Small Sins but 15 years later?" — suggests an erasure of everything that came after, a retconning of the band's later history. That seems wholly unnecessary; both Mood Swings and Pot Calls Kettle Black, while not as successful commercially or artistically, were certainly good albums, both with some great songs worth revisiting today. It also begs the question: why resurrect the project in the first place? Looking at his post-Small Sins career, D'Arcy appears to be a reasonably successful producer, working with artists like Yukon Blonde and The Sheepdogs, releasing music under his own name when he sees fit. The group never had a terribly steady line-up (over-enthusiastic percussionist Kevin "The Clapper" Hilliard didn't even play on the band's debut).
Yet, Volume II feels like the most personal work D'Arcy's produced since, well, Small Sins' debut. It inevitably fails to live up to it's counterpart, but that hardly seems to have been the point. D'arcy clearly had some things he wanted to get off his chest that that record's sound were uniquely suited to conveying.
The record closes with "Stuck with Each Other," a self-effacing slow burn that celebrates, in a vaguely sardonic way, the joy of love for the long haul. It would very easily fit on any Eels record. But it's also fun to think of the song's lyric as describing the ongoing conversation between an artist and their art: "I'm stuck with you, and you're stuck with me and that's nice." (Arts & Crafts)