I think Elliott Smith is a good songwriter. As I have said when reviewing his other albums, I really don’t get the idea that he is one of the great songwriters of his generation, but he’s certainly very good. His songs are a little too poppy for my tastes, but I can at least appreciate his craft. And I would say I am coming to like his lyrics more than I initially did. (Initially I felt like I needed to be 17 to really like them.) Having just listened to Apples in Stereo, Smith shows what the difference is between someone who is just really good at writing melodies and someone who is really good at writing melodies and is a good lyricist.
My biggest problem with Smith remains his slickness: this is a guy whose voice does not lend itself to a polished sound, nor do his lyrics. And yet… the arrangements are nearly always more elaborate than they need to be. (Case in point the orchestral bells on “Junk Bond Trader”. Really?) In most cases I really want the arrangements to match the tone of the lyrics (or at least the singer) and I find that Smith rarely gets that right – certainly the later into his career you go, the more this is true. XO felt like it was brash enough that it overcame this problem. (If the artist sells arrangements out of touch with the words/delivery well enough then I don’t care as much.) But here I don’t think it works as much. I often find myself wondering what these songs would sound like if it was just him and a guitar or two.
(As an illustration: compare the sparse opening of “Everything Means Nothing to Me” to the rest of the album. Or even compare the judicious use of overdubs on that song with the excessive instrumentation of basically everything else. I’m not opposed to lots of instruments. I just want them to be used well.)
Still, everything about this is very well done. It is not my thing – over-produced power pop and chamber pop just isn’t my thing – but it is very clearly good. (And, like I said, listening to Apples in Stereo’s album from this year, which feels like a lot of window dressing for music that, at bottom isn’t really sophisticated, makes me appreciate someone who is a little more straightforward.)