Elliott Smith Returns To The Spotlight, Gingerly

The Portland, Ore.-based singer/songwriter is following his "Good Will Hunting" notoriety with a new album.

Singer/songwriter Elliott Smith never has been totally 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.