Singer/songwriter Elliott Smith never has been totally comfortable with the
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,
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
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.