smith returns to the spotlight, gingerly
singer/songwriter elliott smith never has been comfortable with the spotlight.
at this year's academy awards ceremony, where smith first gained exposure to a mass audience, his performance was a study in self-effacement -- a quantum ego-leap from the "titanic"-sized presentation of the preceding performer, celine dion.
it's no surprise, then, that just as the attention of the world should be focused on him, smith is about to point the spotlight in another direction.
he's pointing it at a new elliott smith.
the smith we have come to know -- based on his first three solo albums -- is the understated singer/songwriter of thoughtful, acoustic guitar-driven personal portraits, most famously expressed in the "good will hunting" song "miss misery," which garnered smith an academy award nomination and brought him to the awards-show stage.
we've also known him from heatmiser, the aggressive northwest punk band in which smith shares vocal and songwriting duties.
lately, fueled by the oscar broadcast, anticipation has been building for the portland, ore.-based songwriter's major-label debut, xo.
when that album bows later this summer, listeners will find a somewhat different smith -- one who has enveloped himself in more textured sounds, as well as musical and lyrical references to times long passed.
by employing string arrangements, drums, saloon pianos and backing vocals,smith and producers tom rothrock and rob schnapf (beck, mary lou lord) have created an atmosphere that falls somewhere between the aggressive noise of smith's work in heatmiser and the nakedness of his earlier solo material.
two of xo's 13 tracks are straight waltzes. If the form sounds odd for smith's decidedly punk-influenced style of lyricism, listeners will hear that waltz rhythms nonetheless provide a superb vehicle for smith's concise details. on the title track, for instance, he observes of a woman, "she looks composed/ so she is i suppose."
like some of the best of smith's earlier work, the song serves up an intriguing sketch of a character others might well choose to ignore, much like paul mccartney's "eleanor rigby" or elvis costello's "veronica." The singer here possesses a strange fascination with a person whose emotions have been deadened to the world. "i'm never gonna know you now, but i'm gonna love you anyhow," smith confesses.
the beatles and '60s references don't end with that song. the piano and drums on "baby britain," for example, are straight off of abbey road; elsewhere, smith name-drops such iconic song titles as "cathy's clown" (by the everly brothers) or tommy james' "crimson and clover." as with similar anchor points on return of the frog queen, the 1996 solo debut from sunny day real estate singer jeremy enigk, these elements don't overshadow smith's talents (a la oasis), but instead serve as discernible details in his sometimes elliptical work.
throughout, the album's vignettes are riddled with failed understandings. "they took your life apart and called your failures art," smith fires off in the opening track, "tomorrow tomorrow."
"everybody cares, everybody understands" reveals its hand even before the listener has heard the first notes. no singer as blistering as smith would utter such an absolute with sincerity, and here his tone is expectedly condemning. "it's a chemical embrace that kicks you in the head to a pure synthetic sympathy," he observes with little sympathy. even the sunshiny chorus -- "here i lay dreaming at the brilliant sun/raining its guiding light on everyone" -- is undercut by a sinister chord change.
it's such pointed songcraft that ensures that smith likely will not avoid the spotlight, try though he might.