"I FELL IN LOVE... but it was weird. Real weird."
"Good weird? Or bad weird?"
"... I don't know."
This dialogue opens "Green Blood," the last track on Sonny and the Sunsets' new album, Antenna to the Afterworld. The song goes on to tell a cardboard-rocketship story about falling in love with an alien and then losing her in the cosmos. As goofy as that sounds, its reeling confusion and sense of marvel makes for one of the sweetest, most charming love songs of the year.
Science-fiction overtones permeate the rest of Antenna's warm-hearted songs, too, knitted from buzzy synths and warbling guitars. Via strangely mixed tracks, Sonny Smith's backing band provides voices for different characters, in stories that touch upon death and the afterlife in an appealingly inquisitive, hand-drawn comic-book setting. The quick, fizzy song-bursts are strikingly different from the Sunsets' 2012 album, Longtime Companion, which was a loping, contemplative album of tumbleweed country. While Smith's stylistic restlessness leaves no corner of the map unfolded—he also recorded 100 singles under 100 different aliases as part of a mammoth art project—there's a sense of coherence in the wildly varied explorations of the San Francisco-based songwriter/playwright/polymath.
"It kind of makes me feel like a director who decides to do a western and then a sci-fi movie or something," says Smith, talking on a wet and malfunctioning cell phone from a swimming hole in Austin. "Actually, that might be a slightly misleading analogy, because I didn't really set out to make a sci-fi thing. You kind of crawl around in the dark for a little while trying to figure out what it is you're making and you're just kind of going by instinct."
Glimmers of light began to reveal themselves after Smith's first-ever visit to a psychic, who established contact with a recently deceased friend of his during the consultation. "I didn't know she considered herself a medium as well. She did the psychic stuff that I guess is typical, giving me information based on my birthday and, I don't know, whatever vibes she was reading," Smith says. "And then she was like, 'Hey there's somebody here who wants to talk to you.' It was really trippy."
That led him to write about life after death, which in turn got him thinking about science-fiction stories, a connection that makes perfect sense in the context of Antenna's wide-eyed wonderment. "I was remembering my mom when I grew up, too," Smith says. "She was a big sci-fi fan, and I was being a little nostalgic of the books that were on the shelf when I was a kid. And I know that I was watching Blade Runner and I was listening to the soundtrack and I was like, 'What is that synth that Vangelis was using?' But as far as what is informing what, I think it's all a big swirl. I don't really think about that too much, because I don't want to have some sort of recipe for every record."
The recipe, in Antenna's case, has made for a surprisingly thoughtful and resonant work that transforms bubblegum- and folk-flecked pop into songs that don't flinch from asking big questions—and they are catchy while doing so. "Whatever is true, whatever is real," Smith says, "set me off in thinking about those things and embracing them all, kind of. Aliens and other dimensions and parallel universes and where we go when we die and all that shit. If you can't prove that it doesn't exist, then I'd like to talk about it."