elliott smith indulges in a poor man's speedball -- coffee and a camel light -- while an engineer loads a tape containing rough mixes from his new album, *figure 8* (dreamworks). "everything sounds better loud," smith qietly declares. and while everybody knows rock is meant to be listened to at ear-bleeding volume levels, this statement seems quite shocking coming from a singer/songwriter like smith, whose oeurve has barely ever exceeded a sensuous hush.
smith was anointed the twenty-something king of "sadcore" following the 1998 release of the brilliant and brittle release *xo*, his first record for dreamworks following three indie solo outings. but *figure 8* figures to turn heads, if only for its surprising muscularity. clearly, elliott's been eating his spinach.
not that he's gone totally aggro. smith still has a beatles-esque way with melody and his lyrics retain their incisive bite, but on *figure 8* he gives his electric guitar the kind of proper workout he used to inflict on it during his days with the portland punk combo heatmiser. songs like "son of sam" and "stupidity tries" contain gauzy layers of vocals, but big, lush sounds color in the empty spaces. it's loud and grandiouse, more *revolver* than *rubber soul.*
but smith hasn't completely forsaken his folksy roots -- this isn't *elliott smith in the life of chris gaines*. he shows his patented sensitive side on "everything reminds me of her," a track filled with delicate acoustic picking and raw, conversational lyrics that throb like a human heart in your hands.
more typical is the don't-tread-on-me defiance of "color bars." over a revved-up "dear prudence"-like arrangement, smith snipes at the shallowness of mainstream culture ("you're just some dude with a stilted attitude that you learned on tv") while simultaneously resisting its attempts to categorize him ("everybody wants me to ride into the sun/I don't want to go"). the song was inspired, he says, by werner herzog movies; more specifically, the brutish german actor bruno s., hardly an american beauty by any stretch of the imagination. "how come we have no bruno s. here?" smith asks. "how come he can be a film star in europe, but over here everybody has to look like they were computer generated?"
"color bars" may also be smith's way of expressing his frustration with the way he has been sliced and diced by a media keen on painting him as mr. misery. "the stories written about me last year were talking about *somebody*," he says. "but it wasn't someone i spend a lot of time with." *figure 8's* broader, impressionistic lyrics figure to provide less fodder for smith's self-appointed analysts. "i think a lot of fuss was made about whether i'm personally happy or not," says the man who wrote the wrenching 'needle in the hay," an intense diary of addiction, on 1995's *elliott smith*. "what difference does it make? just because somebody doesn't go around singing jubilant songs doesn't mean that they're necessarily more happy or unhappy than anybody else. it's like if you have a bad dream, does that mean you're not a happy person? dreams are the same place that songs come from."
so elliott smith has nightmares. who doesn't? actually, he isn't such a dour guy. he certainly seems content about his recent move from brooklyn to los angeles. besides, his record is named after a *schoolhouse rock* classic (which he covers in abbreviated form. "it's a creepy little song," smith says with relish. "the lyrics are this weird obsessive number thing. *figure 8* is a circle turning around upon itself."
alas, another recent cover doesn't appear on the new album -- smith's otherworldly reworking of the beatles' "because," recorded for the *american beauty* soundtrack. smith, a fab four fanatic since early childhood, was initially reluctant to remake a beatles tune -- something about treading on sacred ground. "what's the point?" he says. "it was fun to do, it's just weird to think about. but that's the way most things are, and that's the way this record has been. it was fun to do, but not much fun to think about -- particularly that ocean of opinion that surrounds every record that people put out."
a healthy distrust of the entertianment industry is also the reason smith nearly chose fighting fires over making music. he had been writing songs since the age of 14, but was suspicious of the sharks running the business. but before he could submit his applicatioin to the portland, oregon, fire department, his best friend, neil gust, suggested they start a band, which became heatmiser. "neil said, 'you're talking yourself out of all the things you want to do.'"
while riding the post-grunge wave was hardly smith's cup of tea, he played the good soldier for five years. "most of it was that my best friend was the other singer and i was friends with everybody in the band. i didin't feel like i wanted to sink the boat."
the heatmiser vessel sank in 1996, leaving smith free to follow his solo muse full time. after playing the oscars (performing *good will hunting's* academy award nominated "miss misery"), receiving nothing but critical kudos for xo and doing a high-profile gig at actor kevin spacey's house for the cast party of *american beauty*, smith's braced for his bubble to burst. he figures he's due and, besides, he's a cynical bastard at heart. "one minute the critics love you, and then suddenly the next thing you do is on the chopping block," smith says. "people get sick of something, and just decide it sucks."
yeah, but what's the worst that can happen? the world can always use a few more singing firemen.
after the breakup: five beatles solo tracks elliott smith can't live without:
"my sweet lord" (george harrison): "i like a lot of things on all things must pass. everybody's heard 'my sweet lord' a million times, but i still like it. it sounds good walking around in new york, looking at all the people."
"isn't it a pity" (george harrison): "it's hypnotic and it's not really asking anything in particular from the listener. it's just sort of... like floating in a pool."
"what is life" (harrison): "especially the chords and the verse. it's got a melody that turns around on itself in a cool way."
"jealous guy" (john lennon): "really simple words, just telling it like it is."
"it don't come easy" (ringo starr): "i like the way this song starts -- how the drums come in and the guitar has a little solo that goes 'wow-wow', and the backup singer go 'ooh-ooh'. it adds just a little bit of pixie dust."
thanks to alice