Ryan Meaney is ready for Gopher hockey.
Central High School in Saint Paul, Minnesota is a behemoth of both size and notoriety. Not only is it the oldest school in the state (the class of 2018 will be its 148th) and one of the most populated, but it has an extensive alumni list from far reaching fields: DJ Skee, Yankee legend Dave Winfield, and Adam Sandler’s own Nick Swardson are just a few. The school also boasts one of the strongest music and choral programs in the city, winning championships and regularly performing for massive audiences across the state. One of the many uniformly dressed members of the 2014 Central High choir was sixteen year old Corbin Smidzik, an unassuming young man who was quickly gaining Internet fame as a duraged R&B lothario.
Under the misleading stage name Spooky Black, Corbin Smidzik, equally a fan of Mountain folk music and Lil Ugly Mane, put out his debut mixtape Forest in 2013. Filled with sinister beats and laughably grotesque writing like, “This purple drank that is ending my life/Gives me the strength to deepen my knife,” Corbin sounded more Future Hendrix than Johnny Gill. Listening to it now, it’s easy to discern the joke, from the outlandish lyrics to the five dollar bill sticking out of his wool hat on the cover. But joke or no joke, the next year would prove to be a whirlwind for Smidzik with the release of Black Silk and the video for single “Without U.”
Adorned in all white, elegantly trekking through the snow-laden woods of Minnesota, looking like the real light skinned Keith Sweat, Corbin went from a local jokester with a video camera to a viral star. The “Without U” video has now amassed over four million views, and brought heaps of attention onto the heavy eyed then sixteen year old. Black Silk and the following Leaving EP featured smooth neo-r&b production with Corbin’s signature howling vocals that received the attention of both listeners and record companies alike. Blogs wanted to know who this young crooner was (Buzzfeed wins the prize for worst headline: “This White Teenager Calls Himself Spooky Black”), and the more they pined for interviews the more reclusive Corbin became.
After a short, sold out tour with Twin Cities supergroup thestand4rd (featuring rappers Allan Kingdom, Bobby Raps, and producer Psymun), Corbin faded from view, with only a sprinkling of one offs popping up on Soundcloud to keep the masses wanting more. As quickly as he had arrived, Corbin just as quickly vanished.
Three years after his last solo effort, Corbin’s debut full length, Mourn, finds the young Minnesotan exhibiting his cloistered demeanor in the form of a concept album. The record follows a loose story of a young man convincing the person he loves to run away with him to a bunker in preparation for the end of days. The protagonist then dies in a plane crash before his lover passes away alone. It’s grim and beautiful, mixing both the ostentatious gloom of Forest with the carnal yearning of Black Silk.
Album opener “ICE BOY” dissolves from a synthpop love note to an obsessive cry for affection, with our narrator asserting, “Press up closer, you drive me mad/Just tell me you’re willing to leave all you had.” There is a consistent struggle the narrator displays between gentle affection and compulsive control on Mourn, and the balance is often flirted with but never quite found.
Shlohmo and D33J of the Wedidit collective (also the label on which the record is released) handle the production on the album, the results of which allows Corbin to take his melancholia to the extreme. The music is a gentle mix of Disintegration and Late Nights with Jeremih; it is spacious without being cavernous, tight and sumptuous without being overtly sexy. The drums on “Something Safe” echo and churn under a simple piano, giving Corbin the capacity to wail at his most pained and despondent. “All Out” grows and molds from a simple synth line to a crescendo of crashing drum and cowbell. Shlohmo and D33J offer the right amount of nostalgia and subtlety, allowing Corbin’s voice the breadth and attention it so greatly deserves.
While Corbin’s voice has always been something special to behold, and the production on Mourn acts as the perfect vessel for his instrument, it is readily apparent that songwriting nuance is not yet his strength. He wears his heart on his sleeve, which can be jarring and oftentimes distracting from the story being told.
“Revenge Song” begins aggressively with, “Did he touch you where you said he did?,” a startling line that seems out of character. At only nineteen years old, Corbin has plenty of time to work on crafting his lyrics in a way that match and even enhance the emotional depth of his voice. Until then, Mourn can be heard as an affective stepping stone for an artist still experimenting with their artistic voice. Corbin Smidzik is no longer among the faces of the Central High School Minutemen Choir; he is a singular artist with a plethora of talent still waiting to be unlocked.