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.
"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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"Wouldn't Mama Be Proud?" exemplifies this tactic. Musically it's a hook-o-rama that sounds like something Eric Carmen might have written on a good day. But the lyrics -- "The question is, wouldn't mama be proud?/ There's a silver lining in the corporate cloud/ And the pretty post that you're taking as an NCO of the great pretender/I should think so!" -- constitute a witheringly sarcastic assault on avarice and those afflicted with it. But instead of spitting out these sentiments as might an industrial-rock maven, Smith practically caresses them. To him, his delivery is more faithful to the ways average Joes and Janes actually behave.
"Most people I know, when they get really mad about something, don't lean out their window and scream about it to people they don't even know," he says. "Usually their voice will drop down low and they'll be like [a near whisper], "That fuckin' pisses me off.' There's lots of things I like to sing about, but not many things I can imagine wanting to scream about."
Except maybe that review in Fortune. "It's incredible to me that they'd do a review of my album at all, and that my name would even appear in that magazine," he fumes. "So part of me is like, "That's a bunch of crap.' But another part of me is like, "Who cares?' I mean, it's Fortune. Besides, everybody's an expert when it comes to music. If it was a painting, they'd have to go ask somebody else who knew something about painting. But since it's pop music, everybody feels in a position to criticize people.
"It really bothers me when I think about it. So I don't think about it very much."