By Tyler Morgenstern, Contributing Writer
“If it were to be a cinematic experience,” Sam Armstrong-Zickefoose says of his album Spark in Your Smile, “it’s almost a coming-to-age story, or coming into one’s own, but just at the arrival point. There’s still half an hour of the movie left.” Set to be released on May 7, Spark in Your Smile is Armstrong-Zickefoose’s debut solo project, a formidable first crack at stepping out of the role of supporting player into that of the singer-songwriter troubadour. It’s only fitting, then, that this first collection of songs released under his own name—brisk and breezy, but with a structural rigor that betrays substantial formal training—should feel like something of an inflection point. Armstrong-Zickafoose was kind enough to give us an exclusive preview of one of the Spark tracks, “Cold Hands” (at bottom.)
Across ten tracks, Armstrong-Zickafoose deftly blends traditional bluegrass aesthetics with a refreshingly contemporary approach to production, frolicking with new lovers under wide-open skies (“Round and Around”) even as he grapples with the insistent weight of things past—hands he might have held (“Cold Hands”), secrets he might have unlocked (“Heart of Mine”), stands he might have taken (“I’m Sorry”).
The tension is nowhere so pronounced as on “Cold Hands.” Like much of the rest of the album, the track lilts forward, light on its feet. Far-off, splashy cymbals (courtesy of long-time friend and collaborator Colton Liberatore) complement Armstrong-Zickefoose’s sprightly and virtuosic banjo playing. All the while, Joe D’esposito’s sinuous fiddle winds between the two, leaving plenty of room for playful rhythmic shifts that imbue the track with a nostalgic tipsiness.
Zickefoose’s lyrics, however, pull in a different direction, offering a hazy, half-remembered portrait of a relationship that might have been, and of a partner who drifts in and out of legibility—little fragments that never quite settle into a memory. “Holding cold hands / Under tables / I tried to hide/ Oh, how shy,” Armstrong-Zickefoose plaintively sings, sketching his would-be paramour in pointillist detail, their face hardly distinguishable.
Saw your green eyes
And your red nose
Those Christmas lights
Strung up so high
In the end, it’s something of an apology, or maybe a wish, spoken plainly and without pretense: “I hope you know / What it was you gave / I should have.”
It’s a turn that Armstrong-Zickefoose makes often on Spark in Your Smile, offering recompense for past wrongs while never wallowing, never indulging in the sort of shame that so often stalls rather than catalyzes growth. Speaking of “I’m Sorry,” a surprisingly upbeat reflection on the insidiousness of toxic masculinity, Armstrong-Zickefoose tells me, “It’s easy to get bogged down in that stuff,” to simply declare “I guess I’m just a shitty person” and give up on accountability before the work’s even begun. “It’s about unlearning,” Armstrong-Zickefoose observes, “and it’s work to unlearn it.”
This willingness to put in the work, to press on and strike out along new paths, may well be the titular spark in Armstrong-Zickefoose’s smile. At the very least, it’s the beating heart of this promising debut album, which bristles with the energy of an artist — and a human — increasingly at home in his own skin, however bruised by missteps and could-have-beens.
Speaking with Armstrong-Zickefoose, it’s clear this sense of ease has been hard-fought, won through the always unfinished work of coming to know oneself as queer without any ready-to-hand models or examples to follow. But on Spark in Your Smile, it shines all the same. “A weight has lifted now that I’m honest about this part of me,” Armstrong-Zickefoose tells me about his later-in-life coming out. “I can explore other aspects of myself. It feels freeing, both as a queer person and an artist…I have more pieces into place. It’s exciting to think about these things and explore.”
That sense of freedom is especially palpable on “Train on the Island,” where Armstrong-Zickefoose triumphantly declares over a propulsive banjo line, “Train on the island, headed for the west / Running to my true love, the one I love the best… / Smoke from the engine, steam from the stack / I’m gonna catch that 5:19, I’m never coming back.” Aiming at the horizon without hesitation or reserve, it’s an appropriately cinematic song that feels less like an arrival point than a defiant declaration of departure. We look forward to that next half hour.
Spark in Your Smile is available for pre-order now on BandCamp.