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This much we know about Elliott Smith: He moved to Portland at age 14, made his first solo album in 1994, performed his Oscar-nominated song ("Miss Misery") during the 1998 Academy Awards, and was Spin's runner-up artist of the year for 1998. He prefers to write songs without thinking too much about them, and he would rather not talk about a number of things. But the fact sheets aren't fooling anybody, since they leave out that which makes Smith such an elusively fascinating figure. It's his songs -- especially the ones about self-doubt, codependency, and romantic complication -- and their achingly vivid, almost clichéd depictions of hard times that tell the true story, factual or not.
Figure 8 won't do anything to change his public persona as the most introspective and earnest of current songwriters. At its best, the album recalls the pent-up melancholy and desperate self-reliance that make his previous two efforts, 1997's either/or and the following year's XO, enduring and engaging. Weighty but never overbearing, Smith's make-believe sketches of schemers and dreamers seem like the real deal, as with his portrayals of a delusional ex in "Somebody That I Used to Know" and the despondent loner of "I Better Be Quiet Now." Titles such as "Easy Way Out" and "Happiness" might appear masochistically ironic if not for the caring treatment Smith gives his burdened protagonists; for the chorus of the latter, he musters the strength to sing, "All I want now is happiness for you and me" with enough conviction to hope things might work out this time, even though he knows they probably won't.
Such passive-aggressive moments are among Figure 8's strongest, where the most jolting sentiments are expressed in a muted croon and intimate arrangements. Indeed, it is when Smith dresses up hurt feelings in blunt metaphors and a wall of symphonic pop noise that his distinctive craft stops coming through so loud and clear. Full-on productions like "Junk Bond Trader" and "LA" are muddled by unconvincing role play and tired allegories, while the bouncy rock of the opening track, "Son of Sam," doesn't set the right tone for the material to follow. Smith does find a happy medium between indie integrity and rockist ambition on "Wouldn't Mama Be Proud?" and "Stupidity Tries." If anything, these numbers exhibit a wry, self-effacing wit often obscured by the open wounds his lyrics bare, conveying a subtle humor that has been a part of his approach, though no one seems to notice. Striking such a balance doesn't always come easy on Figure 8, but if Smith's songs -- thematically and artistically -- reveal anything about him, it's that struggling is never futile.