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Smith seems to have taken to the change of scene. The first afternoon of interviews with him wraps up with a couple rounds of croquet in Mittleman's back yard, evidently manicured for various lawn sports. As Smith gets to a quick start with a couple well-placed shots and a few strategic roquets (Oxford English: "Strike [another player's ball] with one's own"), he explains his poise on the field. "Croquet's a big white-trash status symbol," he says. "Back in Dallas, you'd buy the croquet set right after you were set up with the aboveground pool."
He insists that he hasn't actually played the game that much, neither back when he lived in Dallas nor among the alt-rock quasi-suburban bliss of Silver Lake, but there's no question that he seems pretty damn happy amidst the mallets and wickets.
"WHAT I USED TO BE WILL PASS AWAY," Smith sings on his new album's first single. As the voices swell, he continues, "And then you'll see/That all I want now is happiness for you and me." The cover of the single is a thumbs-up on a field of sunshine yellow. It's titled "Happiness," and Smith seems primed for it.
But are the suburbs and the pop marketplace ready for him? Smith still writes all of his own songs, plays most everything on his albums, and the result sounds a little like folk music and a little like rock & roll. If you're counting, that is several strikes against him. Above all, let's remember that 150,000 sales is grounds for getting dropped from most major labels these days.
For their part, those at DreamWorks believe we might still care for songcraft, and though historical credentials are suspect in the world of pop, those running the label have some credibility. In charge are Mo Ostin and Lenny Waronker, the duo responsible for the singer-songwriter revolution that carried Warner Bros. Records to the top in the '70s and '80s, and a duo whose exit from the label coincided with its decline in market share.
"We're trying to expose the music however we can expose it with the notion that at some point the audience will catch up," says Waronker, who, along with Wood, signed Smith. "It's not difficult to listen to Elliott Smith. It's not abrasive music. It's not a thing that people have to be fearful of. It's beautiful and it's complex, and it's all the good things that music should be . . . We just want to allow it to be what it is, and we want people to hear it. And once that happens, all sorts of great stuff happens."
Wood shares Waronker's hopes, and thinks that Smith, too, hopes for greater success. "Elliott wants to reach people. He wants to play to more people. He wants to sell more records. He isn't insular in terms of his community. He doesn't want to be a cult artist who in 15 years gets acclaim retroactively. He doesn't want to be like Jonathan Richman, where 20 years down the line some person hears his records and says to a friend, 'Wow, the Modern Lovers were great. Have you â ever heard this?' He wants people to be exposed to what he does while he's active. He wants to be able to participate."
Reflecting on the marketplace and cultural tenor that have made people label his music as dour, Smith is slightly less sanguine about his chances. "People will always compare what you're doing to what is popular at the moment, and right now, almost anything that's not like a sports metal song or a boy band, or whatever the three or four kinds of songs on the radio are now, is going to get people going, 'Ohhh, that's weird.' It's like the mid-'50s, when there were all these sort of happy teenybopper guys, like Pat Boone. Anything that wasn't that way was going to be darker than that."
So the question is: Will Figure 8 be the album that brings Smith's kind of darkness to light? Like the emotional depths he probes as a songwriter, the answer is uncertain. There's still that something. But where on earlier albums that something was what you could hear of the vocals through the hiss and pop of a basement 8-track, now, recording in considerably less dicey situations -- London's Abbey Road, Hollywood's Capitol and a handful of other L.A. locations -- Smith is able to forge his eerie vocal intimacy one moment and, in the next, double his voice, quadruple it and double it again, building up small symphonies of harmony and interwoven melody, yet leaving room for keyboards, chamberlains, string sections and finger-picked guitars traced over chords. The songs have the builds and breakdowns of a great old-fashioned megalomaniacal rock record; it's dramatic and bathetic, loud and soft, anonymous and particular, all at once.
Another question: Is Smith that artist singer-songwriters everywhere have been waiting for? Again, he's got something -- a softness you want to protect wrapped in a cynicism that doesn't really need you. "He might be too shy, though," demurs Slim Moon. "And when was the last time we had a shy male solo artist? For a male solo artist to be successful there has to be a certain level of identification, and if the person is just a big mystery . . . Elliott certainly has the personality, but I think he might not be willing to access those powers."