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Back to Earth

Every major recording artist has his "moment." It's that fleeting instant when the planets align in such a way that even an eccentric cult figure can bask in the pop-culture sunshine; when the fickle masses temporarily decide that you're the essence of hipness.Elvis Costello had it with Armed Forces, and...
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Every major recording artist has his "moment." It's that fleeting instant when the planets align in such a way that even an eccentric cult figure can bask in the pop-culture sunshine; when the fickle masses temporarily decide that you're the essence of hipness.

Elvis Costello had it with Armed Forces, and lost it almost overnight with some idiotic drunken babble in an Ohio hotel bar. Bob Dylan had it with "Like a Rolling Stone" and "Positively 4th Street," and lost it with "Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?". Prince had it with Purple Rain and lost it with Around the World in a Day.

In September of 1998, pop auteur Elliott Smith had his moment. At the time, Smith was riding high on the acclaim he'd received for his musical contributions to the 1997 hit film Good Will Hunting. His song "Miss Misery" had been nominated for an Academy Award, and a white-suited, visibly uncomfortable Smith even performed the song at the Oscars, sandwiched between leather-lunged divas Trisha Yearwood and Celine Dion.

With the August 1998 release of XO -- Smith's debut with DreamWorks Records after releasing three indie solo discs, and two albums and an EP with the Portland grunge band Heatmiser -- music-biz expectations were high. Some pundits even speculated that Good Will Hunting would ignite Smith's career as The Graduate had done for Simon and Garfunkel.

The following month, Smith held court before an overflow crowd at the downtown Seattle venue Showbox. The gig drew many longtime Smith loyalists, the kind of fans who could, on command, recite the lyrics to "Between the Bars" or "Needle in the Hay." But you could also sense a sizable contingent who were there because they'd heard from a friend that this guy was the new rage. They looked on with excited curiosity as the scrawny, acne-scarred introvert in the wool cap played one melodic, emotionally insular song after another. They listened intently to his nearly indecipherable between-song mumbles.

Two years later, Smith's moment has come and gone, and it's obvious that there are no hit singles or platinum albums on the horizon for him. But he seems genuinely relieved that the hoopla has died down, and wishes he could forever escape the baggage that Good Will Hunting created for him.

"It was weird," the 30-year-old Smith says from a tour stop in Edinburgh, Scotland. "I went from being an anomalistic indie person to 'Oscar Guy.' And I didn't really like it. It seems that I'll never get away from it. It's kind of strange, because it doesn't have very much connection with what I'm trying to do. Those songs had all been released before, except for one song."

Smith's bout with fame unleashed a flood of media misconceptions and misinformation about him. Among the highlights: Good Will Hunting director Gus Van Sant discovered Smith playing in a coffee house in 1996 (Smith had already released two solo albums by that time); Smith had a fling with the film's female lead, Minnie Driver (just friends, he says); and his Oscar nomination was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream (pure fiction, he says).

On the musical front, the film's success cemented Smith's image as the minstrel of melancholy, a confessional folk troubadour. Many failed to notice that his intricate pop song structures had little in common with folk music.

Growing up in Dallas in the '70s, Smith's heroes had been the Beatles, Stevie Wonder and the Clash, not Woody Guthrie or Ramblin' Jack Elliott. But some critics mistook Smith's frequent use of the acoustic guitar as a signal that he was some kind of postmodern heir to the folk tradition.

"I was just using the technology that was available to me," he says. "You can do a lot of things on acoustic guitar. But to some people, the simple fact that you're playing an acoustic guitar means that it's folk music. I think that's ridiculous, but those are probably people who've never actually heard folk."

Actually, if Smith's work suggests the influence of any one artist, it's Big Star-era Alex Chilton. Smith often encores with Chilton's nostalgic ballad "Thirteen," and his best album, the intimate, home-made 1997 release either/or, was a gorgeous distillation of the best elements of Big Star's Radio City and Sister Lovers.

Smith ended either/or with the acoustic track "Say Yes," an obvious homage to Radio City's acoustic closer, "I'm in Love With a Girl." To make the connection unmistakable, Smith's song began with the line: "I'm in love with the world/Through the eyes of a girl."

Like the early-'70s Chilton, Smith's voice is a high, fragile instrument that's on a first-name basis with heartache. It allows him to make even the most cryptic, code-language lyrics register viscerally.

Smith has been playing music since the age of 10, starting on piano and quickly gravitating to guitar. At the age of 14, he moved with his mother and two younger siblings from Dallas to Portland, Oregon.

It was in Portland where Smith jumped on the grunge bandwagon with the raucous but mediocre group Heatmiser. Meanwhile, he began building a collection of quieter, introspective material, which eventually found its way onto Roman Candle, his 1994 solo debut on the Cavity Search label, recorded at home on a four-track machine.

Smith's growth as a songwriter continued with his eponymously titled 1995 solo album, but it was with either/or that his musical mastery truly blossomed. It revealed a talent that, with or without the help of Gus Van Sant, could not be ignored by major labels.

After either/or, Smith signed with DreamWorks, and for the first time had a sizable recording budget to work with. Along the way, some of the roughhewn charm of either/or has been lost, but Smith has compensated by indulging his passion for layered arrangements. On XO and his most recent release, Figure 8, he's used string sections, horns, tack piano and dense block harmonies to add color, but not cloying sweetness, to his music.

Figure 8 also confirms Smith's growing multi-instrumental mastery. With the exception of a few guest cameos (ex-Attraction Pete Thomas plays drums on three tracks), Smith basically plays and sings everything himself. His skills are so solid that it's nearly impossible to tell the difference between the Smith solo tracks and the real band performances.

As on previous albums, Smith's lyrics on Figure 8 are all vague insinuation and mysterious subtext. Though he has an occasional flair for evocative imagery ("the spin of the earth impaled a silhouette of the sun on the steeple"), Smith uses words merely to underline feelings created by his music, not the other way around. It's an intuitive approach that sometimes makes you feel as though you've wandered into the middle of a diary entry without knowing who any of the central characters are.

"There's no real plan to it," he says. "I like to have a mental picture of what I'm writing about, but I don't usually have a coherent story to my songs. It might kind of turn out that way when it's done. But it's kind of like dreaming. Your imagination will make it up for you as you go along."

He goes to great lengths to avoid pinning down what his songs are about, and admits that he's not very helpful when one of his zealous fans approaches him with questions about his lyrics.

"Sometimes it's difficult for me to tell people what certain songs are about, because I don't necessarily know myself," he says. "And if I did think they were just about one thing, I probably wouldn't like them very much."

Strangely, for someone whose public image is that of a shy, solitary figure, Smith tends to feel more comfortable writing in public places, like bars, than in the comfort of his own living room. He hates to be left alone with his own thoughts, and feels that solitude can make the songwriting process too self-conscious.

"Sometimes it's hard to be imaginative if you're on your own in a quiet place," he says. "You start concentrating on it too hard."

Smith also seems to seek inspiration through changes of scenery. He's been based in a different city for each of his last three albums, moving from Portland to New York in 1997 and settling in Los Angeles in 1999. In L.A., he's fallen in with producer and power-pop guru Jon Brion, occasionally turning up at Brion's Friday night free-for-alls at the West Hollywood club Largo, and taking the stage "after I've had too many drinks and can't sing very well anymore."

True to recent form, Smith's already gotten bored with L.A., and sounds like he's ready to leave. When asked why he's so reluctant to settle in any place for long, he lets out an aural shrug. Like he usually does, Smith politely provides an answer, without actually explaining his motivations.

"One city's just as good as another," he says. "I've lived in L.A. for about a year and a half, and I'll probably move pretty soon. There's no real reason to stay in one place for too long."

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