Elliott Smith gets gentler in '8'

by Joe Manera | 5/2/00 5:00am

As the alleged voice of the perpetually forlorn, Elliott Smith has been misinterpreted more than any of the current (small) crop of high-profile neo-folkies. The photos: bad posture, greasy hair, imperfect complexion. The lyrics: romanticide. The fans: more than a few beautiful kids that equate sad with deep, obscure with worthy. The final picture is of a pied-piper of fatalism. Smith sings songs soaked in booze and tears, attracts mopey college kids and their dorm room crushes, and tells them all that life is meaningless.

But the story doesn't play itself out the way you think that it would. Instead of inspiring the aforementioned beautiful boys and girls to fling themselves off of bridges, Smith's music cooks them supper and tucks them in. "Between the Bars," "Angeles" and "Speed Trials" achieved levels of fuzzy warm blanket-ness that REM would be aspiring to nowadays if they weren't too busy playing pretentious Beat hobos. The songs, on second and third and umpteenth listens, are soft on the surface and hard underneath. Smith isn't love's doormat, exactly. He's got way too much ego.

As it stands, Smith has other problems. He has found himself in an unenviable position since 1998, when he was asked to perform "Miss Misery" at that year's Oscar telecast. Every journalist since has asked him what it was like to stand next to Celine Dion for the three seconds that they held hands. It was someone's idea of a sick joke, all right; the chest-pounding Canadian taking a bow with the twitchy dude in ill-fitting white pants. She could have squashed him with her epiglottis. This, unfortunately, was the birth of his celebrity.

With the release of his new album, "Figure 8," Smith's publicists have a request of interviewers: No Celine questions, please. Indie snobbery will have to take a back seat. And it's only right. Smith has been crafting smart folk music for the past half-decade, shifting the formula slightly each time.

"Figure 8" doesn't so much expand on the sounds of his last opus, "XO," as it does wash over them with gentler hues. That last album saw Smith's production budget swell and skyrocket, and the result was more Beatles than Nick Drake, the artist to whom he is most often compared.

The opener "Sweet Adeline" started as a whisper, as most Smith songs do, before launching into a full-fledged orchestral assault. Later tracks proved that the wee, elliptical singer-songwriter hadn't disappeared completely; Smith had been swallowed by George Harrison but was still singing the body melancholic.

While some die-hards griped that "XO" saw Smith spin his brittle folk-pop into slick, silvery twaddle, most folks took the journey with him. "XO" sounded like the record he had been waiting his whole career to make. Once he had the money, he went berserk. Production by John Brion, LA's finest? Previously unheard (and unimagined) brass sections? Recordings that took longer than a week to commit to tape? Check, check, check.

"Figure 8," then, is a slight step back. It has more of the basement tapes feel that characterized his first three solo albums, but enough surprising and mature orchestration to satisfy recent fans. It's an excellent primer for newbies.

Smith's appeal can be summarized by the back-to-back songs "Everything Reminds Me of Her" and "Everything Means Nothing to Me." He presents himself, time and again, as jilted and near-hopeless. He's either wistful and pensive, as in the former track, or bleak and slightly esoteric, as in the latter. Either way, he does smart and sad better than anyone else today. Several of the album's song titles -- "Somebody That I Used To Know," "I Better Be Quiet Now" and "Bye" -- even sound like excerpts from a conversation that is going spectacularly poorly.

If there's one major flaw in the record, it's Smith's incessant gripes about those who have "wronged" him. Ex-lovers and snaky record company executives are going to find themselves ducking under their chairs after listening to some of the material here. Smith comes this close to martyring himself. "It's all about taking the easy way out for you, I suppose" he sings churlishly in one song. If he weren't quick to blame himself for most of his problems, he'd be insufferable.

At this point, however, self-pitying self-aggrandizement is expected of Smith. To recommend that he temper his dark side would be like asking for a sunny Nine Inch Nails or a less melodramatic Tori Amos. Smith may make himself wear winter coats in the summer, but he wears them well.

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