James Taylor may have been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last month, but even Volkswagen knows Nick Drake is the true prince of shrug-rock. Thanks to the use of his 1972 ballad ”Pink Moon” in the car manufacturer’s current Cabrio ad, a new generation has been tipped off to Drake’s melancholic lullabies. It’s enough to make one look fondly upon the ad agencies who co-opt rock tunes for use in commercials. Pathologically shy and inordinately sensitive, Drake, a British folkie and underground fave who died of an apparently accidental drug overdose in 1974, has all the traits of a perfect cult hero, and it’s about time his following expanded.
Beyond the baleful beauty of ”Pink Moon,” the sudden interest in the sound of Drake’s feathery voice and guitar may be its seeming familiarity. In the last decade, a number of equally ashen singer-songwriters have spun derivations on his music, none more adeptly than Elliott Smith. Lightly strummed contemplations like ”Miss Misery,” Smith’s Oscar-nominated song from Good Will Hunting, owed a great deal to the Drake style, and Figure 8 continues on that course. No longer a slave to low-budget production values since he left behind indie labels, Smith surrounds his pasty-skinned voice with saloon pianos, polite garage-band bashings, crisp jangles, and dark-castle chamber pop (much like he did on his 1998 DreamWorks debut, XO).
Somewhere along the way, though, Smith forgot to write exceptional songs to match the sonic upgrade. His music has always straddled the line between fragility and triviality, and too much of Figure 8 falls on the wrong side of that divide. Whether he’s re-creating ”Miss Misery” (”Easy Way Out,” ”Somebody That I Used to Know”) or lashing out at a self-satisfied corporate type (”Wouldn’t Mama Be Proud?”), the songs feel slighter than ever, and Smith himself continues to undermine his innate lyricism with snippy churlishness. (”It’s all about taking the easy way out for you, I suppose,” goes the typically finger-pointing chorus of ”Easy Way Out.”) The album’s tales of money, corruption, and movie-star debauchery — presumably inspired by his recent move from New York to Los Angeles — only succeed in making him seem loftier than thou rather than a sympathetic figure. Thanks to its ornate touches, Figure 8 works as innocuous background music, but one doubts that’s what Smith had in mind.
If anyone could make Smith sound like an insouciant, keg-tipping frat boy, it’s Uber-eccentric Joseph Arthur. At a recent solo performance, the gaunt, gangly New Yorker presented himself as a certified oddball, singing one tune lying on his back and spitting out sips of water like a human fountain — all to a beat box accompaniment. But his intensely self-absorbed songs and uneasy stage comments were uncommonly riveting.
In an era when humble singer-songwriters with a flair for oldfangled song have become little more than cult figures, Arthur somehow wrangled himself a major-label deal — with Peter Gabriel’s eclectic world-music company Real World — and the result is Come to Where I’m From, his second album. Like any self-respecting (or self-disrespecting?) troubadour, Arthur primarily dwells on failed affairs and dismantled hopes, and he does it in a parched drone that makes him sound as if he barely had enough energy to hoist open the recording-studio door. (Thanks to that crackly delivery, a line like ”Oh darling since you’ve been away from me/I know how the pins feel in the bowling alley,” from ”Ashes Everywhere,” isn’t nearly as corny as it reads on the page.) The songs adhere to the beautiful-loser template established by Leonard Cohen, to which Arthur adds bumpier, near-hip-hop rhythms and desolate-angel sentiments like ”Now Jesus he came down here just to die for all my sins/I need him to come back here and die for me again.”
Luckily, producer T-Bone Burnett (best known these days for his work with the Wallflowers) doesn’t bathe Arthur in embalmed roots pop. Come to Where I’m From is as tastefully ravaged as its lyrics, a scorched landscape of murky atmospherics, unshaven guitars, and — surprise — delicately affecting melodies. (A few tracks, like ”Exhausted,” in which he grows weary just thinking, rock with engaging raggedness.) The uplifting ”Chemical” finds Arthur openly admitting to any number of excesses, narcotic and otherwise, and he sets these admissions to a scruffy pop tune with a blossoming chorus — a pretty neat trick. One gets the feeling Nick Drake would have come to where Arthur was any day, for both tea and sympathy. Figure 8: B- Come to Where I’m From: A-