If the tale of Elliott Smith’s remarkable transformation from shambling slo-fi folkster to slightly less shambling toast of Hollywood’s nouveau-cool should ever be adapted for the silver screen, it would, undoubtedly, be heralded the feel-good movie of the year.
The plot – in a reassuringly plaid-clad nutshell – would run as follows: bobble-hatted, guitar-slinging hobo trades small-town slacker attitude for passport to the Big Time. Through hard work and lots of (typically American) determination, he becomes successful; releasing four albums of charmingly lived-in folk-rock strummery. Eventually, Hollywood takes his frail musings and sweet melodies to its icy heart. An unprecedented Oscar nomination (for his work on the soundtrack to Good Will Hunting) follows, and accolades are waved like streamers at a village fete.
All of which makes for charming viewing, of course, but those holding out for a happy-ever-after ending for Portland’s favourite grouch have a long, uncomfortable wait ahead. Smith’s curiously noble tale may well be the American Dream made rumpled, pockmarked flesh, but the grumpster is already shifting awkwardly in those designer-cool duds. Like a lo-fi Eliza Dolittle, it seems success has caused him to reassess both his new-found status and thematical framework, with the result that ‘Figure 8’ – the follow-up to 1998’s chart-tickling ‘XO’ – sees Smith’s focus swell from the strictly personal to encompass more adventurous vistas.
Yet from its wilfully vague title to its often jarring jauntiness, ‘Figure 8’ – the fifth amendment in Smith’s increasingly odd career – seems intentionally difficult to pin down; an album awash with pretty ambiguities and difficult twists. There are no easy answers here, nothing explicit or simple to be plucked from ‘Figure 8”s candy-coated branches. On ‘Everything Means Nothing To Me’, for instance, we find Smith torn between a safe past and indefinite future (“Someone found the future as a statue/Inattention looking backwards”) before repeatedly whispering the title – as gorgeously baroque pianos spiral woozily out of control.
The overall effect is only temporarily soothing; a drop of arsenic hidden in a lump of sugary whimsy. But while it frequently flaunts its pouting, petulant side, ‘Figure 8’ is far from the anti-Hollywood tirade that one may have expected. Indeed ‘LA’ sees Smith snub the obvious opportunity to diss the cold-hearted machinations of his adopted town in favour of a bittersweet FM stroll down Steely Dan’s gently cynical patio – all breezy chords and beautiful days. Peel away the lo-fi constraints that held Smith in slacker limbo for so long and you’ll find an FM-friendly songwriter with enough classy pop gems to give any AOR troubadour a run for his dough. Hell, opener ‘Son Of Sam’ (“Acting under orders from above”) could even be 10cc. And it’s this that makes ‘Figure 8’ Smith’s finest effort to date.
By clothing his eccentricities, his sheer difficultness, in Hollywood-approved clobber (big strings, glossy production, etc) he has managed to subtly attack the mainstream from within. Hollywood hasn’t polluted his muse – it’s just unwittingly become the backdrop to this most deviously sweet, deliciously clever album. That happy ending will, as ever, have to wait