Mike Skwark’s Smrtdeath project has never been easily defined. In the past four years, the Winnipeg native has incorporated every underground genre under the sun into his deeply sincere and always catchy songs. Turn on Smrtdeath and you’ll hear hip-hop, emo, trap, alternative rock, and a pleasingly warped take on pop. Now based in LA, and frequently collaborating with artists across the entire musical spectrum, the Smrtdeath sound is harder than ever to pin down. His new album, Somethjng’s Wrong is no exception to this no-rules rule. That starts even before you push play.
Skwark himself graces the album’s cover, in a soft focus closeup. His face is framed by his signature long, bright red hair. The red extends onto the left side of his clean shaven face, on which he’s wearing bright lipstick and eye makeup. That’s the feminine side of Swkwark—alias Sethany—that he’s eager to bring to the often overly masculine world of underground music.
The right side of his face, however, is makeup free and mustachioed. While Smrtdeath’s music is certainly not macho, there’s an earnest playfulness to it. He’s not one to shy away from singing about a night out making bad decisions. Sometimes both the celebration and lamentation of those decisions often make it into his song, the yin and yang of indiscretion and adventure. This is music about youth, a modern version of a long tradition of pop idols exploring the elasticity of identity through sonic adventure. Swkwark is a tattooed Ziggy Stardust. Both sides of his face, the masculine and the feminine, are staring straight ahead, very eager and maybe a little sad, just like the music within.
Getting to know all versions of himself, Skwark says, has produced a deeply honest collection of songs. “This album is the best shit I ever made,” says Skwark. “Things are bigger and better.” That’s clear within the first minute of the first track, “Don’t Love Me.” In that brief time, the song moves pushes into a climactic refrain, plucked guitar breaking open into an explosion as Skwark gives a warning about his broken self, singing with a bold and sweet sadness, “I’m a ghost and I’m gone into the night/What you’re looking for I don’t think you’ll get from me.” Keeping away from broken people is a theme of the album, even if occasionally Skwark himself is the one who’s broken. “Sometimes you like stuff that's bad and people that are toxic, and you still want to be with them and just ruin your life,” he says. “It is what it is.”
That last note of acceptance is what separates Somethjng’s Wrong from previous Smrtdeath music. There’s always been a nakedness to his lyrics, and Somethjng’s Wrong mirrors that in its sound. Sometimes it’s in the form of euphoric pop, like the two songs with frequent collaborator Lil Aaron, whose neon braggadocio brings out the hyper fun side of Smrtdeath. And then sometimes the tempo slows. The album has a recurring motif of acoustic guitar that gives emphasis to the beautiful and vulnerable coarseness of Skwark’s voice. While “Headed to My Funeral” has moments of pop-punk ecstasy, the song returns to a bare bones sound where you can feel Skwark working through harder emotions. “At least when it’s dark out I can’t see these demons,” he sings. The record ends on a particularly raw note with what Skwark says is favorite song on the LP, “Nothing’s Wrong,” a collaboration with his labelhead, Epitaph founder and Bad Religion legend, Brett Gurewitz, and versatile producer Jordan Reyes, a frequent voice on the album. The song is an ode to Skwark’s struggles, and to overcoming them. “I think I’m broken beyond fixing/Lost the thread pulled so hard I ripped it,” it begins. “All of my words fall flat on my tongue/So I’m singing this song as if nothing is wrong.” For most of the three-minute track, Skwark is inside his head, just eking out a bluesy warble that matches his pain. And then the track explodes. Huge drums come rolling in like thunder and the guitar starts to rage. “They say life’s a present/Well maybe I want something better,” Skwark’s screams in the album’s final refrain. It’s a heavy moment, but it represents the catharsis embodied in all of Smrtdeath’s music, both for Swkark and his fans. “You’ve got to remember that things can be better,” he said about the song. “You will come out on the other side.” Listening to Somethjng’s Wrong, it seems like he already has.