“A Funny Kind of Sad Joy”
With an album title like Antenna to the Afterworld, it’s not surprising to hear meditations on the age-old, over-wearied subjects of mortality and death sprinkled throughout this record. But what is refreshing about this record is its irrepressible enthusiasm and witty approach to the morbid. On Antenna to the Afterworld, Sonny & The Sunsets, led by the musician/playwright/artist Sonny Smith, give a sly, mocking wink to the macabre and the afterworld.
Rather than indulging in existential ennui, Sonny and company give the Grim Reaper a treatment of buoyant, sun-kissed pop with a distinctive oldies feel. While the band’s previous LP, 2012’s Longtime Companion, turned towards more psychedelic ‘70s rock, this records jumps back a decade to the reverb-soaked beachy pop of the ‘60s. “Dark Corners” starts off with droning synths, light reverb guitars, and a smooth, cool sliding bass melody that leads into the verse. It’s a languid tune for late in the heat of summer, and a preview of the perky pop that characterizes the rest of the album. “Palmreader” makes a light-hearted jab at fortune telling and apocalyptic superstition with jangly treble riffs and a hooky bass melody, and “Mutilator” belies its harsh title with Beatles-esque vocals, warm guitars, and light percussion. Its tone is sardonic and wry, giving a twist to the old trope of a man singing about a cruel woman who’s scorned him: like many of Sonny’s songs, this one features a nod to his playwriting pastime with a dialogue in the middle of the song. Sonny sings and a woman, the “mutilator,” speaks back.
This narrative technique also pops up on the goofy “Green Blood,” which begins with Sonny telling a woman how he “fell in love, but it was weird, really weird”— because, as we quickly find out, the object of his affection is an alien girl with whom he’s having an extraterrestrial, extramarital affair (her husband is a jealous “cyborg type”). But even in the midst of this silliness, the specter of death remains: the song ends with Sonny wondering whether he’ll see her in the afterworld. “Natural Acts” likewise refers back to “the graveyard of my youth,” and “Void” half-heartedly obscures its nihilistic subject with a bright bass line and upbeat tempo. “You know it’s a funny kind of sad joy,” Sonny sings, and this makes sense— it sounds like Sonny & The Sunsets are having the time of their lives.
Antenna to the Afterworld is both a snarky stab at the overwhelming gloominess of death and an entertaining, pleasant pop record— two things that aren’t easily combined.