Being in a band, romantic rock-and-roll fantasy has it, is a form of nonverbal communication -- of connection -- comparable in intensity only to sex. So what about a guy who goes it alone? Who constructs layered, gorgeously arranged, compositionally innovative pop all by himself? Who only found his voice when he left his band?
One might imagine he'd be a half-blind, hairy-palmed troglodyte. Which could be why singer-songwriter Elliott Smith's fifth solo album, Figure 8 (DreamWorks), is named after a geometric manifestation of solipsism -- the infinite, closed loop that figure skaters practice to hone their skills. He's the quintessential studio loner in the tradition of Brian Wilson -- but he still walks the line between telling self-reflection and off-putting self-involvement.
Smith's one-man-band M.O. was born of necessity: His first solo albums were home-recorded side projects -- outlets for the spare but beautiful folk-pop he couldn't find a happy home for in the noisy songbook of his post-punk outfit, Heatmiser. But his bedroom genius found an unlikely stage at the Shrine Auditorium after "Miss Misery," the song he'd written for Good Will Hunting, got an Oscar nomination. Even on his DreamWorks debut, XO, Smith's big budget mainly bought him more studio time: He played most of the guitar, bass, drum, piano, even harpsichord parts himself.
On Figure 8, Smith evolves from a talented songwriter with a major Beatles jones into a regular one-man band. It's all there: Lennon's mordant irony, McCartney's knack for pop melody, Harrison's unobtrusive chops, and George Martin's classical pedigree, translating into smart, nuanced arrangements. That's not to say Figure 8 is a Beatlemania redux -- just that there's always something there to remind you of Lennon and McCartney. The symphonic meltdown that follows the complex modernist piano on "Everything Means Nothing to Me" could be right out of "A Day in the Life." And "Somebody That I Used to Know" features fingerpicking that evokes "Blackbird" -- even if the embarrassingly bilious lyrics owe more to "How Do You Sleep?" than to "All You Need Is Love."
Compared to its predecessors, Figure 8 includes a little more input from the outside world -- more guest musicians, other producers besides Smith -- but it's still all about Elliott. Sometimes, unfortunately, to less than heartening effect: Smith is capable of subtle introspection, but too many of his new songs sound like the self-pitying complaints of an adolescent venting in his diary. "Easy Way Out," a lovely acoustic-guitar gem, is also a mean-spirited screed (possibly against the singer himself, but trite just the same). "Wouldn't Mama Be Proud" maintains, with ham-fisted sarcasm, that "there's a silver lining in the corporate cloud." And did he really have to follow "Everything Reminds Me of Her" with "Everything Means Nothing to Me"? Combine the titles, as their proximity seems to encourage, and by the transitive property of rock lyrics you get another touching message: "She means nothing to me."
Figure 8 is best when Smith breaks out of his Cat Stevens loop -- no matter what direction he goes. "L.A." features an arena-rock riff that would have done Humble Pie proud. True to its parenthetical subtitle, "In the Lost and Found (Honky Bach)" is a mock-baroque waltz as played by a saloon pianist, with a Mancini-esque melodica solo thrown in for good measure. As a composer, Smith is an anachronism -- he brings musical sophistication to craftily structured songs in a way hardly anybody else still does. But judging from his new batch of lyrics, he could stand to get out a little more.