to the miserable
elliott smith is not a junkie. he's not desperately messed-up, at least not anymore than anyone else. he claims to have written a happy song, and believes that his music seems a bit darker than most because for one thing, he doesn't have a band, and for another, he wouldn't dream of singing contrived lyrics that don't mean anything to him. so explains the singer-songwriter on the phone from his hotel room in nashville, a recent stop on a national tour that will bring him to the roxy in boston monday. "for a while it seemed live everyone was asking me why i was so depressed. but i can't do anything about what people read into the songs. if people are constantly going to be putting someone under a microscope, then that person is either going to quit what they're doing, or get good at not being bothered by it.: still, it's not hard to see why smith has been cast in the role of tunesmith to the downtrodden alt-crowd. his records are filled with unflinching, emotionally raw portraits of drug addicts and alcoholics, and spare, poetic sketches of self-loathing and decayed love. gorgeously tragic words are melded to melodies that are as simultaneously lush and forthright, and as inevitable-sounding, as those crafted by smith's great inspiration, the beatles. smith sings in a wispy, fragile voice; on his most recent album, "xo," he thickens the sensitive-misfit-and-his-guitar aesthetic with piano and string, drums and chamberlain. the album is a triumph of bittersweet pop poetry, and wound up on countless top ten lists (including this writer's) for 1998.
"at first i thought of it as storytelling. it's never seemed confessional to me," says smith, a soft-spoken 29-year-old. "i don't need people to understand what it is to be me. it's more like dreams . . . pieces are me and pieces are other people and pieces are some character i'm making up." however blurred the line between experience and imagination may be, the product of smith's craft is extraordinarily precise. listening to the songs is as lonely and solitary an endeavor as the lives his characters lead. even the instrumental embellishments of "xo" which might easily have cluttered the bleak emotional landscape smith painted with stark arrangements on three previous albums lend a powerful grace to smith's narratives.
"some people who really like stripped-down music were like, hey, why'd you have to go and pile on all this crap. you should have just played the songs,'" recalls smith, who recently moved from portland, oregon to brooklyn. previously on the olympia, washington-based kill rock stars label, smith was signed last year to dreamworks, which released "xo." but he insists that high-profile corporate backing and its reciprocal demands had nothing to do with the fleshed-out sound of "xo," but rather everything to do with growing as a musician. "it's sort of boring to do the same thing over and over that you already know you can do. for me, it was a new thing to try and use more instruments, even though it makes it sound more normal in a way. a lot of times when people use strings, for example, they turn out sappy and sentimental. that just makes it more fun to try to use strings in a way that's better than that. i like being in an area where things are discredited, and to try to put life into it."
even as a child, smith found himself drawn to the cracks that rend a polished surface, preferring a skewed musical angle over the smooth flow of a song. with time, he's learned the power of merging the two. "when i was a kid my favourite thing about songs was when they would change from one part to another," says smith, who began writing songs when he was 13. "so i would make up all of these transitions and put them together. they were really linear and phosphorous, and didn't repeat enough to be songs. they had lots of chords. too many. but i learned a lot about transitions."
to wit, smith's favourite beatles song is the epically twisted "a day in the life." his fondest memory--and this tells you a lot about smith's subject matter--is of when he started going out with his ex-girlfriend. smith's songs are so painfully wistful one has to wonder if the songwriter sees them as a way of reaching out, or if the process is rather one of retreat from a world that supplies such tragic fodder. "that's something i've actually thought about quite a bit," muses smith. "i've come to no conclusion. it's something i've done for so long it's just kind of built in."
what of the music fan who derives deep pleasure, such good feeling, after all, from such sad songs? "i think when people feel bad they often lose touch with reality, and they think they're unique in a bad way. so then they hear these songs, and it's like when you get upset and you talk to your friends so that someone can go this happened to me to.'"
with a figurehead as eloquent as smith speaking for the misfits and loners, it's no surprise that a cult of loser-chic is emerging in his wake. "at the risk of being pretentious, i think that that doesn't really have anything to do with me or my songs, but how contrived the music that's available is," smith protests. "people don't usually sing about anything that really matters to them. so if somebody comes out with something that seems less stilted . . ."
that contrast was brought into bold relief at last year's academy awards, where smith performed his oscar-nominated song "miss misery" from the "good will hunting" soundtrack. smith, stunningly out of place with his greasy hair, white suit, and acoustic guitar, was sandwiched between country-queen trisha yearwood and chest-thumping celine dion. the effect was surreal, as if smith had taken a wrong turn on his way to a club gig and wandered in the stage door to the dorothy chandler pavilion. "that's exactly what it was. surreal," smith says with a quiet laugh. "i enjoy performing almost as much as i enjoy making up songs in the first place. but the oscars was a very strange show, where the set was only one song cut down to less that two minutes, and the audience was a lot of people who didn't come to hear me play. i wouldn't want to live in that world, but it was fun to walk around on the moon for a day."
smith's show at the roxy will split the difference: he's touring with a two-person band in support of "xo." he sounds, however, as if he's already begun to walk away from the album. like the malcontents in his songs, smith has already turned his gaze toward the change from one part to another that he's always embraced. "it's kind of like once something is done it always seems to be lacking something," smith says. "even if it turns out well, it's not good anymore. but i guess i'm about as pleased with it as i ever am."
thanks to rebekah