Man Out of Time

Elliott Smith has nothing to do with what's happening in the current music scene. Thank goodness.

"The records I listen to like that don't always turn up in my music in any tangible way," he goes on. "As much as I like [the Stooges'] Fun House or Raw Power, my records aren't likely to start sounding like that anytime soon. But there are all kinds of things you can pick up and learn from other people. I like getting a bunch of different emotions together, if possible. It's like having a bunch of people from different eras at some big weird party and making them all talk to each other. I think it creates tension, and tension is one of my favorite parts of songs."

Smith's life to date has sported plenty of this quality. A native of Omaha, Nebraska, he came of age in Dallas, where he lived with his mother and stepfather. But at age fourteen, this situation soured and he headed to Portland, Oregon, to stay with his dad. He started writing and recording songs during this period, but his first major foray into music was Heatmiser, a band he formed with Neil Gust while both were attending Massachusetts's Hampshire College. The act managed to churn out five albums during the '90s, the last on a major label (Mic City Sons was issued by Virgin in 1996), but it never really took off, in part because Smith wasn't all that interested in the loud, raucous style that epitomized the group. On the surface, Smith's first solo recording, 1994's Roman Candle, was a far quieter affair, but in its relatively subtle way it allowed him to express the emotions broiling beneath his placid exterior much more effectively than had Heatmiser. Almost immediately, a cult developed around Smith, with devotees spending untold hours attempting to plumb the mysteries of his prose. Many of their readings leave Smith scratching his head.

"Sometimes people have interpretations that I think are kind of odd," he says. "I mean, they're songs; they're not a diary. But there is a real emotional element to them, and sometimes I like their interpretation better than my own. Other times I don't -- but at any rate, I think the possibility of multiple interpretations is potentially something that can make songs interesting, rather than having every song have to be a nice, neat little package with a bow on the top and a nametag telling you what kind of song it is."

After Smith's second solo foray, an untitled 1995 CD now known as Elliott Smith, earned more acclaim than Heatmiser ever had, the band's end was inevitable; Gust and Smith parted ways during the Mic City Sons sessions, and that was that. In 1997, Smith returned with Either/Or, an album that made a profound impression on a growing Elliott fan base that included Portland-based filmmaker Gus Van Sant, who used four songs from the disc in Good Will Hunting. The movie's unexpected success -- not to mention the Oscar attention given to "Miss Misery," written specifically for the flick -- made Smith's move to a major inevitable. But his DreamWorks bow, 1998's XO, hardly sounds like a compromise. Thanks to Smith's innate melodicism and the able assistance of producers Tom Rothrock and Rob Schnapf, the numbers juxtapose finger-popping grooves with dense, sometimes ambiguous lyrics that, depth-wise, are light years beyond today's typical musical product.

Figure 8, also helmed by Rothrock and Schnapf (with help from Smith), is a worthy successor featuring compositions fresh from the pen, as well as some that have been around the block a time or two. ""Junk Bond Trader' is very, very old -- from when I was like maybe eighteen or seventeen or something," Smith allows. "And the lyrics are completely different. I made up words over and over again to that song. Every couple of years I'd remember it and redo it, so that now it's only got like one line from the original lyric -- the one toward the end about being a policeman directing traffic." He adds, "That's the longest it's taken me to finish a song, but it's not like I was trying to make it work out all that time. There's a lot of songs you kind of forget about and then one day years later, you go, "Oh, I remember that thing. I kind of liked it, but the lyrics sucked.'"

They don't now, and neither do those on the other pieces; the new CD brims with absorbing rhymes that become even more stimulating when they're matched with music that often plays against Smith's themes. The opener, "Son of Sam," is a bouncy, ultra-hummable effort with a rockin' bridge that underpins an elusive but fascinating look at a man trying to determine how much of him is sinner and how much is saint. That's followed by "Somebody I Used to Know," an intimate folkie strum that camouflages a nasty streak; in it, Smith croons, "I had tender feelings that you made hard/But it's your heart, not mine, that's scarred." He calls the latter "a pretty straightforward "Fuck off' kind of song -- more straightforward than they usually are. Usually they don't turn out that way, probably because I would feel really bored if I had to be in the exact same mood every time I sang the song to stay inside it and play it well. There has to be room for my imagination to kind of run around inside the lyrics, and hopefully inside people who bother to listen to it."

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