Album Review: Kacy Hill - Simple, Sweet, and Smiling
And what I didn’t know about Kacy Hill when I initially came across her third full-length album, Simple, Sweet, and Smiling, around the time it was released in October of 2021, is that she, at one point, early in her career, was associated with Kanye West’s G.O.O.D Music imprint.
This was surprising to me for some reason, based on the kind of music found within the album itself, but mostly the way Hill presents herself on the album’s cover—it is a painting of her, yes, but posed in such a care-free, breezy way, with the album’s title next to her in a handwritten, curly, cursive font. The presentation itself—just in the cover art alone, was reminiscent of (perhaps intentionally, perhaps not) or at least shares some elements with the artwork to The Cars’ fifth album, Heartbeat City.
This care-free, breezy affect is a far cry from the way Hill was presented, or at least marketed, around the time of her debut full-length, Like A Woman—one of two efforts she released while still signed to G.O.O.D Music. The album’s artwork found her sitting, disaffected, draped in a fur shawl, with bright red thigh-high stockings and a pair of pink boxer shorts; the titular track—slithering and seductive—was accompanied by a video that found Hill quietly and slyly masturbating1 in the backseat of a bus, then later, writhing around on a red sheet wearing elaborate S&M-esque lingerie.
Hill’s connection to Kanye West (she was a back-up dancer during his ill-fated Yeezus tour in 2013, and he signed her to G.O.O.D. shortly after hearing one of her earliest singles, “Experience”) was a surprise, yes, but her 2019 departure from West’s Def Jam subsidiary was, to me, not a surprise at all—she independently released her second album, Is it Selfish if We Talk About Me Again the following year.
Retroactively speaking, her previous full-lengths, especially Is it Selfish, are both enjoyable albums, but neither of them are as captivating, smart, or as focused as Simple, Sweet, and Smiling—an enormous artistic leap forward for Hill as a songwriter and performer, it is as dazzling and infectious as it is intelligence and heartfelt.
“A beautiful melancholy”
I am uncertain how many times through hearing Simple, Sweet, and Smiling, specifically the album’s title track, it took me to land on that description—but what I figured out is that is not, so much, the best way to describe the entire album, but rather, a feeling that Hill is the most successful at effortlessly conjuring in very distinct moments throughout.
Across Simple, Sweet’s 11 tracks, Hill and a stable of producers—James Stack, John Carroll Kirby, and Ariel Rechtshaid to name a few—use a very contemporary sonic edge to bridge the gaps between shimmering 1980s pop and smoldering 1990s R&B balladry. The results are never cloying, or presented as ironic, but rather, there is an unabashed earnestness to it all—a very genuine homage that takes its influences and inspiration, then pushes them further out into places of clever originality.
Simple, Sweet, and Smiling opens slowly, or at least with restraint—“I Couldn’t Wait” is probably among the most contemporary sounding song of the set because of the way Hill shifts and warps her vocals the further she gets into the song. Set against a twinkling progression on the piano, there is a lightness to it—a playful feeling, or even a slight sense of whimsy as Hill works within a melody that, even upon my earliest listens, felt incredibly familiar. It’s tough to articulate, and maybe you’ll notice it too, or understand, but there is something about the groove of the song, and the way Hill allows herself to drift through the melody, that is reminiscent of a simmering 1990s R&B ballad.
The reserve that Hill plays with here isn’t indicative of the 10 songs that will follow, but it does set a tone that she continues in “Seasons Bloom,” where she, again, plays with the pitch of her voice, bending it into icy, mechanical places while a jittering, clattering rhythm tumbles around underneath her. She does, however, allow the song to open up exponentially more in the song’s shimmering refrain—her voice, returning from the heavily manipulated places it was in the first verse, with glistening synthesizers gently swirling around it—the first of the very 1980s pop inspired moment on Simple, Sweet.
And if it is a place of beautiful melancholy where Hill is the most successful, or this album is the most impactful, it is the 80s inspiration and influence that is a close second—and perhaps where she spends the most time sonically.
Last fall, I spent a lot of time immersed in the second full length from Zoe Reynold’s indie pop project Kississippi—Mood Ring, and in both my piece on it, and in attempting to describe it to folks who I thought might be interested, I had made a clumsy correlation between it and Carly Rae Jepsen—specifically Jepsen’s 2015 undisputed pop masterpiece, EMOTION.
The further I listened to Simple, Sweet, and Smiling, and as I got to the “note taking” portion of my analytical listening process, the more I found myself describing songs as having “big Carly Rae Jepsen energy.”
Arriving after the album’s hallway point, “So Loud” is the first song I noticed really exuding that kind of a feeling.
That energy is mostly in the way Hill carries her voice, set against the glitchy rhythm behind her, and the very warm, very vintage sounding synthesizer arrangement—as well as in the balance between tension and release in the chorus, which is punctuated by these enormous, crunchy sounding drum fills, that eventually join the rest of the instrumentation to create a seemingly erratic rhythm that isn’t hard to follow, per se, but takes a little bit of concentration to understand.
And sequenced near the end of the album, “Easy Going” has even bigger Carly Rae energy thanks to the shuffling rhythm that you cannot help but dance along to—even of it’s just rolling your shoulders a little bit in time with the music; the warmth of the synthesizer progression, and the voluminous nature of the chorus cement it as, perhaps, one of the most fun songs on Simple, Sweet, and Smiling.
With the firm grasp and understanding of pop music from the 1980s and 1990s, early on in the record, Hill turns things back a decade still, with the unrelenting, disco-inspired “The Right Time,” which is among the album’s most impressive, compelling songs.
With a foundation built out of a steady, crisp sounding drum kit, and somber drone of synths, Hill’s vocals have an airy quality to them that lends itself to the taught, thought incredibly infectious, sonic environment.
“Is this an album of love songs?”
That is a question I didn’t so much ask myself, but asked, while reflecting on Simple, Sweet, and Smiling.
There are songs here about love, but there is also a very palpable desperation and urgency, at times, to the way Hill depicts it in her lyrics.
“I want you to miss me,” a line that she almost breathlessly coos in “The Right Time, arrives sounding quite somber, and like it has some very difficult emotions attached to it.
There’s something beautiful and melancholic about the way she lets the phrase spill out into the rhythm of the song.
Whoever wrote the Wikipedia entry for Simple, Sweet, and Smiling is quick to say the album’s lyrics are an exploration of feelings of powerlessness and agoraphobic panic disorder, as well as gratitude towards loved ones, and moments of clarity. And it is worth noting that there are a lot of lyrics that reflect anxiety throughout—the most obvious, or apparent, being in the ironically titled “Easy Going.”
“Sometimes I get lost in the clouds of my mind,” she sings in the opening line. “I get quiet and stuff—gotta great to unwind. Then I ask stupid things, like, you know, ‘Are you mad at me?’ No reason at all—just my own anxiety.”
Or, later on, the final, linger line in the chorus—“Inside, I’m screaming, ‘I just wanna feel fine.’”
Or, earlier in the album, on the acoustic-tinged “Walking at Midnight,” where Hill, with razor sharp accuracy, describes the panic, or anxiety, felt within a social situation—“Wish that I would have stayed—it sure is nice seeing everyone’s face. Now I’m letting myself get the best of me,” she confesses in the opening lines before ruminating in the memorable refrain: “Can’t tell what’s real, or in my mind.”
If there’s any clear songs about love to be found on Simple, Sweet, the album’s penultimate track, “The Stars,” would be one of them (“I just wanted to be the best for you and for me—I don’t want to be the one to let you down”), but there is an immediacy and a terrible longing to the way she both writes about love—whether it be romantic, platonic, or otherwise—and the way she sings about it in the titular track.
There is that beautiful melancholy.
Musically, there is a sweeping sense of drama that comes in during the song’s chorus, where Hill again pushes her voice to an airy, breathy register—not beyond her limitations, but into a place of noticeable and admirable fragility. But before all that, there is something somber and kind of sparse about the song’s overall instrumentation—a steady, surprisingly quick snare drum hit keeps the rhythm, while both a chintzy sounding keyboard, and dreamy, heavily processed guitar noodling file into place accordingly.
“Simple, Sweet, and Smiling” could, in fact, soar if it wanted to—something enormous and anthemic, once it hits the chorus, but Hill keeps things tightly wound, and in that sense of restraint, comes that very powerful rush of melancholy and beauty.
“Baby, it’s wrong to ever feel you’re alone,” she assures. “Everyone’s down the same road.”
And, I suppose, it is not a surprise that the most musically inward, and possibly the most lyrically pensive, is also one of the album’s beautifully melancholic moments.
Sequenced after Simple, Sweet hits its halfway point, “Caterpillars” skitters and burns so, so slowly—musically, set to mournful piano and some twinkling synthesizers, it’s the absolutely fascinating way the sweeping, swaying percussive elements work to make this kind of big, emotional momentum while Hill manages to keep the other pieces of the song as reserved as she can.
“I can’t shake the feeling that I’m not enough,” she concedes in the opening lines of “Caterpillar”’s first verse. “Thought I’d grow into someone who does it all.”
Rarely is there an album that will break your heart in one moment, then have you singing along to something jaunty in the next—but Kacy Hill manages to pull this off with an undeniable grace on Simple, Sweet, and Smiling. It is a thoughtful, gleaming artistic statement that does not signify Hill’s arrival—I mean, she has been performing for quite some time, but rather, it further cements her as an artist that demands your full attention.
1- I had wanted to make a footnote for this, specifically, because in a press release about the video, Hill stated she was trying to “make space for exploration without shame or guilt.”