Saturday, September 10, 2011
This is why LeMay's use of the song-by-song analysis is so effective. It isn't filler or fluff--the song-by-song is the book. LeMay treats his analyses as archaeological, in a way. We see how, as lyrics change and bend, their meanings and narratives changing with them, in effect exonerating Smith's music from being sentenced to the songwriter's past. While LeMay is in this analytical mode, his reading of XO is phenomenal.
Where LeMay begins to falter, if only a little, is when he begins dealing more explicitly with other writers' treatments of Smith. In a way, LeMay takes these bits too personally, and fails to recognize the broader context of the most-main-of-mainstream popular culture from which many of these critics were writing. LeMay takes issue with USA Today and Yahoo! Launch articles that describe Smith's sudden rise from "obscurity" to performing at the Oscars. I understand why this seems troubling to LeMay. We've all felt this way, when a buddy says "Hey, I just got this album called Good News For People Who Love Bad News by this new band called Modest Mouse." Just because a band or artist is "new" to the listener/writer/reporter doesn't mean it's new to everyone. But LeMay seems to expect that the primary audiences of USA Today and Yahoo! Launch--the people for whom their writers are writing--would be at all interested in Elliott Smith's past. In a way, LeMay's one failure with this book is his inability to separate the mainstream press from indie culture, and taking that mainstream press to task for trying to present an artist who defied narrativization to a fickle, and largely uninterested mainstream audience. At one point, LeMay is critical of a critic for referring to a particular club in L.A. as small when, in fact, it's a nice-sized club for nice-sized touring acts. Here's the problem--the majority of the audience for which the initial article was written would probably list their most recent concert experience as U2 or Celine Dion or Garth Brooks at Big-Ass-Fucking-Arena-United in 1996.
To this end, some of LeMay's argument feels a bit disingenuous because he doesn't account for the the real mainstream popular culture in the late nineties and early aughts when Smith was getting press. This does not, however, take anything away from LeMay's exceptional work tracing the evolution of Smith's songs, and the argument that he makes in separating Smith's music from the tragic narrative of the artist, himself.