By Bree Davies
By Emerald O'Brien
By Gina Tron
By Jon Solomon
By Drew Ailes
By Courtney Harrell
By Kyra Scrimgeour
Like all of Elliott Smith's best songs, "Junk Bond Trader," a key track on Figure 8, his fine new album, is more than its title indicates; instead of merely telling the story of a Wall Street bottom-feeder, it uses such an individual as a jumping-off point for a more personal meditation. But included in its lyrics are some scathing remarks about the lifestyle of professional materialists who are always "trying to sell a sucker a style," including the couplet "I won't take your medicine, I don't need a remedy/To be all that I can be" and the repeated line "Better sell it while you can..." So it's a rather ripe irony to discover that not only was the disc that contains this ditty recently reviewed in Fortune, the favorite magazine of capitalists everywhere, but that the blurb was complimentary, albeit in a grudging and brief way.The anonymous Fortune scribe's item reads in its entirety: "Smith unabashedly wears his slacker heart on his sleeve, sounding like the amplified bastard son of Simon and Garfunkel. He somehow manages to avoid being annoying. No small feat."
Sure, this snippet is stupid, missing just about everything that makes Smith worth hearing. But its mere existence should please Smith, shouldn't it? After all, the tenor of the sentences conjures up the image of a critic who still has a touch of humanity lurking beneath his implacable veneer and is more than a bit pissed off that Smith found it. That's pretty funny, right?
Not to Smith, it isn't. For most of his conversation with Westword, which finds him in a hotel room somewhere along the Great American Highway he's traveling on his current tour, Smith answers questions in a manner midway between laid-back and woozy, with a relieved laugh occasionally popping up following those queries that strike him as being a tad more imaginative than "Could you believe that you were nominated for an Oscar?" (he received a nod in 1998 for "Miss Misery" from Good Will Hunting and performed on the Academy Awards broadcast alongside Trisha Yearwood and Celine Dion) or "How come your music is so depressing?" ("That makes me want to say, "I don't think my music's depressing. Why do you think it's depressing?'" he notes.) But his reaction upon hearing the Fortune assessment isn't amusement but anger, pure and simple.
"That's a bunch of bullshit," he snaps, suddenly passionate. "I'm so sick of that knee-jerk Paul Simon reference just because I sing quietly sometimes. It's all very irritating."
In some ways, the fervor of this reaction isn't surprising: While describing Smith's work as "depressing" is moronic in the extreme, he's not the kind of guy who's regularly confused with Little Mary Sunshine, and neither does he come across as gregarious during most of his performances. However, Smith's career, at least recently, has been marked mainly by praise, not numb-nuts comparisons to the man who gave us "The Boxer." In many ways, his approach, which couples singer/songwriterly tendencies with pop melodicism that ranges from the austere to the ornate, couldn't have less to do with the trend toward glossy, featherweight entertainment that's ruling today's Top 40, but his artistry has been embraced anyway by both underground and mainstream observers across the musical spectrum. For that reason, he's among the best-reviewed performers of the past several years, and unlike many cult artists, who insist that commercial success couldn't be further from their minds even as they lust after fat radio hits, he truly seems to see mass popularity as less important than penning a good tune. In his view, "I don't try to think about all that other stuff. I try to think about songs."
So what's the problem? Smith's dodgy about spelling it out, but there is no shortage of duties in his life that would get on the nerves of most people. He's signed to DreamWorks, a mega label affiliated with the Steven Spielberg empire, and although such an operation would appear to be antithetical to his goals, he speaks positively about it: "They've been really good to me," he insists. "They don't treat me like a tool for moneymaking, and they're pretty young for a major label. I think they're actually trying to put out some good records." Yet being connected to this massive combine brings with it responsibilities -- to pose for pictures, to make public appearances, to sit still for these damn interviews -- that have nothing to do with putting words and sounds together. "I don't mind that kind of thing," he says about the publicity grind, but his tone implies that the truth is closer to "I'd rather be skinned by six psychotics with potato peelers than go through this routine one more time."
Fortunately, this unpleasantness has not yet squelched Smith's enthusiasm for music. He admits that he seldom tunes into radio much these days ("It doesn't really help me to do it," he says), but he continues to indulge in his lifelong habit of spinning a single disc exclusively for weeks or months at a time -- and his choices often tend toward acts with which he seems to have little in common. He comes back to Iggy Pop and the Stooges time and again, and is presently obsessing over Nico's The Marble Index, a platter produced by John Cale, the icy vocalist's former Velvet Underground co-conspirator, back in 1969. "It's very different from the kind of songs that I seem to make up, and it seems very static in a way," he points out. "It doesn't move a whole lot, but it's still really great, and I'm intrigued by that. There's something really cool about how static and immovable it is -- very stream-of-consciousness-like and harmonically kind of droning. Even though I've been listening to it over and over again, I still can't put my finger on what I like about it. But I really do like it.