Singer-songwriter Brett Dennen makes the happiest kind of music. His songs are effervescent and cheerful, with a good-time vibe that is always easy to listen to. He has released five studio albums over a decade, and with his most recent album, Smoke and Mirrors, he seems to balance his happy-go-lucky style with a sentimentality and sadness that gives his music new depth.
Smoke and Mirrors is Dennen’s return after a slight detour on his last album, Loverboy, which experimented with funkier dance music. Here, he gracefully shifts from lighthearted love songs to uplifting anthems directed toward the wandering rebels of the world.
A born-and-raised northern Californian, Dennen began his musical career in 2004 and has continued to uphold his style of folk-y songs that can be played around a campfire throughout his entire career. Dennen attended Camp Jack Hazard during his childhood and later worked there as a counselor; he has noted that the camp and being able to retreat into the wilderness have been his main inspirations.
“I used to spend a lot of time in the mountains,” Dennen said when talking to NPR about his new album. “And being on the road, I had stopped spending so much time up there. So, I went up into the mountains and started writing. And what came up was just the way I was feeling. And I was just in a place of, like, not really being sure of myself or not really knowing who I was at that point.”
Opening Smoke and Mirrors is “Sweet Persuasion,” in which Dennen humorously states, “I’ve got a hard reputation.” The song begins the album on an upbeat and positive note. “Wild Child” is the point in the album at which Dennen comes forth with his folk-rocker style, and this feel-good, head-bobbing anthem is an instant classic for all the hippies, road-trippers, and wanderers out there. Similar to “Wild Child,” “When We Were Young” is the most upbeat song on the album. Slightly cheesy in its nostalgia, this is the only song in which Dennen seems to veer away from the simplicity that is prevalent throughout the rest of the album.
“Smoke and Mirrors,” “Don’t Mess With Karma,” and “Only Want You” ultimately epitomize the feeling of this album. Characterized by layered guitar parts and pretty melodies, they convey emotional messages about issues like love, equality, and social pressures. Artfully understated and undeniably delightful, these three songs are my personal favorites. There’s nothing big or grand about them, and that’s what makes them so memorable.
“You know, as long as I’m having fun doing it, and as long as I make sure to take the time to just get down to, like, the important stuff in life, and let music just be what you do but not everything you do,” Dennen said to NPR.
This is Dennen coming back to the type of music that he began with all those years ago. Beginning as a redheaded hippy from northern California, he has experimented and toyed with other genres of music over the years. In this album, Dennen returns to his authentic roots: charming and unfussy songs full of honest lyrics that speak to all the wanderers of the world.