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He Skates Deftly on Thin Ice

Like several key tunes on this album, “Everything Reminds Me of Her” is exactly the kind of bittersweet farewell number that you’d expect from Smith, and that’s a comforting sign--mostly.

The glare of the pop spotlight can break the focus of even the most dedicated artist--and the light was bright indeed when Smith’s “Miss Misery” was nominated for a best song Oscar in 1998, and when his subsequent album, “XO,” won critical raves.

Despite it all, sales were only modest on “XO"--and that could have caused a wounded Smith to either retreat to the musical sparseness of his earlier indie releases or to sacrifice some of the subtlety and sophistication of his work in pursuit of higher chart position.

In “Figure 8" (due in stores Tuesday), Smith avoids both extremes. From the endearing resilience of “Stupidity Tries” to the emotional numbness of “Can’t Make a Sound,’ Smith’s writing remains uncompromising. He dissects relationships and moods as deftly as anyone since Elvis Costello, though with more of a whisper than Costello’s scream.

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Smith’s progress this time out is in the musical shading, which is more aggressive, adding some Beatle-esque muscle to the lingering Simon & Garfunkel folk tapestries. Over time, you’d like to see Smith expand his thematic range to give us reflections that aren’t necessarily what you’d expect from him, but that would still retain the sharpness of his vision. Within his somewhat narrow boundaries, however, he remains a master.

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Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent). The albums are already released unless otherwise noted.


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