There’s something terrific in Mariel Loveland waiting to burst out. It did once upon a time, with her old band Candy Hearts and their album All The Way You Let Me Down, a pop-punk gem of the 2010s that was smartly written, beautifully produced, as sharp as you like, and remains so underrated to this day. Even at almost a decade old, that album represents the zenith of Loveland’s artistry, of which her subsequent solo project Best Ex really has struggled to find similar footing in. Even discounting the sky-high bar already set, the jumps into pop and alt-pop have often felt at the expense of similar kinds of sparkle. Previous EPs have been decent, sure, but the long, drawn-out road to arrive at debut full-length With A Smile has sort of exacerbated the space left by that missing component.
It’s hard to really describe or qualify, but the sensation does hit, particularly if you’re looking out for it. And that’s why it’s so good to say that With A Smile is, hands down, Loveland’s best work to date under the Best Ex name. Hell, remove the uncatchable albatross of All The Way You Let Me Down off the board, and it might be her best work, full stop. Though that’s not to say it’s an absolute, nailed-on win; it’s still on the learning curve, as opposed to the goal at the end. But it’s also a kind of pop that, by and large, fits Loveland’s own creatively sensibilities ridiculously well, as the sort of fun, free endeavour that Best Ex was likely always visualised as.
In a way though, that can make With A Smile’s shortcomings glare out all the more. They’re almost squarely tied to percussion options, something that a naturally softer and smaller sound like this can find difficult to just brush away. An overall nice sound can be truly crippled by awkward choices in places, as Tell Your Friends finds its soft-focus flutters overwhelmed by its heavy, flat clank, and Stay With Me’s fuel is siphoned away by the incessant crunch and squelch that’s louder than most everything else. Simply put, they aren’t strong features, nor do they really flatter Loveland’s whole angle here. With A Smile is defined by its own softness and light, and anything that distracts from that can’t really pull itself back.
The energy of bedroom-pop or TikTok-pop can be there at times, even though that’s not precisely where Loveland is pointing. It’s unavoidable in some of the less cohesive decisions—the overweight 2010s pop ponderousness of Die For You really doesn’t fit this smaller scale—but it’s also not something that’s impossible to manage. Ultimately, that’s why With A Smile sticks the landing when it does, in Loveland centring herself with what suits her best. Here, it’s a more indie-centric take on the pop space occupied by an artist like Maisie Peters—gauzy-edged, pastel synthpop that mightn’t have as tight a hold on certain ‘80s playbooks, but works for results that aren’t a million miles away. There’s open space for the likes of Salt On Skin and Cut Me Out to sizzle and twinkle, rather than drilling into a typical wiriness. True, they mightn’t be as propulsive as a result, but there’s also a flow and lack of inhibitions that plays pretty well, especially on the flirtations with alt-country on The End. All the while, the blurry synths swaddle this mix to blur out any solid edges even further, thereby defining the core melodies all the more and making them a fair bit stronger as a result.
It’s clearly an approach that works for Loveland, even if it does have a few limitations in the grander scheme of pop. Compared to acts going unabashedly bigger and bolder, With A Smile doesn’t grip quite as much; it’s more suited to diaristic thoughts scratched down, and fed through Loveland’s more delicate voice. But that in itself carries its own set of values, in which there’s still plenty to like. The writing, for one, is routinely excellent, anchored in post-relationship growth and actualisation, and rediscovering self-worth while untangling feelings of identity and reconditioning to the idea of happiness and contentment. That tends to be a winner on its own, and through the lens of an overtly poetic style shaped in feminine-coded imagery and directions, that identity definitely extends to a musical level, too. The aura of early Taylor Swift cascades off this thing, and in a very good way. Of course, that can be tempered by more mature framing overall, but it can definitely be felt all over, particularly in a song like Joyride (Glad You Found Me), in its exuberance in the headlong rush of finding real love.
The important thing is how none of this is ever saccharine, even though there’s every opportunity for it to be. Loveland is such a grounded storyteller that any notion of that is cut off rather swiftly, and cauterised by a wonderful songwriting style that yields such fantastic lines as “Nothing looks as pretty in the daylight / When the teeth of the city spit the sun into the sky”—seriously, how good is that?! As far as pop in this vein goes, With A Smile feels simultaneously more and less anomalous in the current sphere with each listen, and that’s where the charm lies. Even without the blockbuster budgets and meticulous, atomised quality control, there’s still something here that can hold its own, with the realms of real humanity being the same big selling point that it often is. And when Loveland is at the core—an artist whose refinement process in this world has only bore more and more fruit with each iteration—the flickers of magic are subtle, but unmistakable. Within the Best Ex catalogue at least, this is the first legitimately strong hit.
For fans of: Taylor Swift, Maisie Peters, Jetty Bones
‘With A Smile’ by Best Ex is released on 6th October on Alcopop! Records (UK) / Iodine Recordings (US).
Words by Luke Nuttall