Elliott Smith, that gentle soul who sports a Ferdinand the Bull tattoo on his right upper arm, released his second Dreamwork's album, Figure 8, to almost Easterlike anticipation by critics and die-hard fans. Yet, like Ferdinand, the newly puffy-haired, puffy-featured Elliott seems to have spent too much time sniffing fleurs on the hillside. Improbably thrust into the public eye after fellow Portland-ite Gus Van Sant used Smith on his Good Will Hunting soundtrack, former indie guy Smith now has the clout and financial support to go wild in the studio. Unfortunately, with 16 over-arranged songs, Figure 8 is more tiring than amazing. Don't get me wrong, this is a pleasant enough album, but it's simply more of the mood, instrumentation and sounds delivered on XO--hardly surprising since it used the same production team of Tom Rothrock, Rob Schnapf and Smith. This time around, the tack piano, Hammond surges, string swells and long-winded song endings finally overpower Smith's fragile vocals and lyrical strength; you long for the gritty beauty and economy of his earlier solo acoustic albums.
Hearing Smith sing "When they sweep the streets, I'll be the only shit that's left behind" (on the either/or track "Rose Parade") was an epiphany for me: Here was a brilliant songwriter who combined lyrical realism with the voice of head Zombie Colin Blunstone. Smith no doubt sees the irony of being embraced by all the "right" people. Through songs like "Junk Bond Trader" and "Wouldn't Mama Be Proud" (his sly dig at flying first-class, where he's told, "Kid, you're on the right track"), Smith wears the mantle of pop guru as if it were an old windbreaker he found at the bus station. Perhaps on Figure 8 Smith's gauzy vocal style, elliptical chord changes and whimsical arrangements have become so familiar that it's easy to take him for granted. But with his Beatle-isms appearing to settle on McCartney's ballads (think endless reworkings of "Blackbird"), Figure 8 might just be Smith's Beige Album.