Fans who hang on every word and every note. A major-label contract. Enough laudatory reviews to wallpaper the palace at Versailles. Even an Oscar nomination. You might think these considerations would bring a modicum of contentment to Elliott Smith on his fifth solo album, Figure 8. But you’d be underestimating the exquisite purity and commitment behind his perpetual bummer.
No mere improvement in personal fortunes will change Smith’s bargain with listeners: to provide ruthless, sad-eyed insight swathed in melodies that the Beatles would not disown. His music reaches out with contours and cadences that promise the sociability of a singalong. But his voice is wary and quietly seething, and his words find their only safety in renunciation. In one new song, he rides a crescendo from “A Day in the Life” while he insists, “Everything means nothing to me.”
Smith has engaged the world now, only to have every cynical instinct confirmed. “Got a foot in the door / God knows what for,” he shrugs in “Stupidity Tries.” And love is even riskier than celebrity. “Somebody That I Used to Know” adds another scathing breakup song to Smith’s extensive catalog, despite amiable fingerpicking out of “I’ve Just Seen a Face.” Later, he blames himself in “Everything Reminds Me of Her,” using conversational Simon and Garfunkel phrasing to confess that he’s staring into space, crying, because he “came across it and lost it.” The best he can do romantically, with “In the Lost and Found (Honky Bach),” is steal a kiss and then flee, thinking, “I’m alone, that’s OK, I don’t mind most of the time.”
Smith stays alone in a musical niche where he’s unwilling to budge. The chord progressions are recombinant Beatles — especially minor-key Beatles like “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” — with some Beach Boys touches; the tunes are waltzes and Mersey-beat bounces. Figure 8, produced by Smith with Tom Rothrock and Rob Schnapf (Foo Fighters, Beck), sequesters Smith with handmade sounds that last appeared no more recently than the 1960s.
For all their harmonic convolutions and tucked-away chorales, the arrangements exude modesty, without the arena-size inflation of Beatle-fan bands like Oasis — without, actually, anything to suggest that Smith wants to grapple with brash, gleaming twenty-first-century pop. Reclusion suits him; he compares himself to Son of Sam, hearing his own voices, and he inadvertently proves his detachment by not caring that Spike Lee got to Son of Sam first.
There’s another big crescendo in the album’s grand finale, “Can’t Make a Sound,” an anthem of isolation in which Smith wonders, “Why should you want any other when you’re a world within a world?” He finds no peace in his solitude, but he’s convinced that anything else might be worse.