By Emily Eveland
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"All things must pass," George Harrison once gently reminded us. Elliott Smith is proof that things really mustn't--not now, not ever! Not relationships, not resentments, not descending basslines.
Still, after listening to four albums of grudge-grubbing, you might think that even Smith would be ready to move on. But new experiences are so superficial, and what's so great about closure anyway? Instead of advancing with Figure 8 (DreamWorks), Smith stays the course, continuing to drill down deep, to excavate, to trade on knowable nuances of self and past.
For those of us who found his albums when we needed them, Smith has been faithful dealer, drug, and drug buddy. Of course, for the rest of the world he's just that weird guy who sang that song from Good Will Hunting at the Oscars. It was there that his northwestern postpunk pedigree and ex-addict's distracted demeanor first positioned him as a stealthy anti-star, his protective white tux reflecting the glare of his puzzled audience right back out at them.
But it's not this love/hate affair with the music biz that makes Smith so resonant throughout a DIY diaspora that came of age in the Nineties. It's the frankness of his solitude. The sanctity of his self-awareness. The way his sobbed vocals trip over themselves. The way he plays his Gibson hollow-body delicately and deliberately. His repeated trysts with faithless language. His wrung-out-to-dry fatigue. The way his solipsism is rapturously self-implicating. And the way his quintessential breakup records heart-framed our favorite mistakes and let us hide from the hoopla that marked the end of what was, for many of us, a glimmering, if mercurial, indie-rocking decade.
If Smith's ornate offerings seem Beatlesesque, as lazy critics dub anything they can hum later, it's only because he really wants to be George Harrison. George smoking in Hamburg. George breaking into a toothy laugh. George gone troppo, strumming gorgeous changes at his Maui beach house. George tossing off earnest melodies. George Harrison as predictable polestar for anybody who hangs with the soulful late-Gen X clique currently buzzing round high-modernist pop producer Jon Brion's busy L.A. hive.
Less visceral than the seminally folky Either/Or, less precise than the pure-pop X/O, Figure 8 finds Smith in something of a welter. The opening track, "Son of Sam," a by-the-numbers rocker, is followed by the acoustic "Somebody That I Used to Know," which packs some compressed, Costello-style bitterness. On the self-satirizing "Everything Is Nothing to Me," Smith goofs on chamber music affectations. He reserves his more serious frayed edges for this sobering lyric from "LA": "Living in the day/Last night I was about to blow it all away."
Overall, though, the structures of his songs seem as confining and inward-gazing as his themes--his pat foregone artistic conclusions starting to mirror the misery of his foregone emotional ends. "Easy Way Out" is a waltzing screed with an earwig of a melody that counterbalances its inherent whininess. It also helps that he's male. Let's face it: If a gloomy chick were to mewl, "It's all about taking the easy way out for you, I suppose," the force created by the collective eye-rolling would probably cause a tsunami. With Elliott Smith, listeners assume he's probably railing against corporate rockers like Matchbox 20 or some other insidious, impersonal trend.
But even if the guy never sighs another fresh sigh, he has done an amazing thing: rendered a heady state of sadistic sadness without apology or arrogance. His blurring of subject and object--he is always the "you" and the "me" in a song--means that his sharpest barbs seem to hurt him the most. "The enemy is within/Don't confuse me with him," he sings on Figure 8's "Stupidity Tries." The enemy of what? Is he about to kiss his best friend's wife or is his baby screwing the girl next door? Either way, you start to feel a little bad for him; you're not sure if you want to smack him or fix him a pot roast. In that sense, he beats critics and spurned lovers alike to the punch.
Of course, this has maybe all done more harm than good--as if the culture needed more male narcissism. Smith's songs unfortunately also function pretty well as self-vindicating anthems for scads of boy sophists who confuse honesty with honor, and revel in inflicting the truth as an emotional weapon--a trait Aimee Mann called out in "That's Just What You Are." (And you can bet your ass that she was really talking to you.) But at least Smith is up-front with warning off potential intimates: When he asks, "Why should you want any other/When you're a world within a world?" on "Can't Make a Sound," he's surely describing his sweet, solipsistic self at the same time.
If you press into the Mainroom on Saturday, you'll see a considerably more juiced-up Elliott than the one we saw a few months ago at the 400 Bar, where he played alone for his most ardent fans, strumming their pain with his fingers. This time he's got a hard-hitting rock drummer and a full band (Quasi's Sam Coomes is getting serious action as all-purpose sideman). He'll play songs from Figure 8 marked by that sort of unreliable retro-chic nostalgia for a time when sadness was somehow more pure. Oh, and he'll smile a lot, too--you can't say he doesn't have a sense of humor about all this. Last week at Manhattan's Irving Plaza, Smith grinningly ditched his pronoun disguises for a nakedly exuberant cover of (guess what?) "I Me Mine."