In a scene from the classic western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Jimmy Stewart asks a local newspaper editor why he won't expose the truth behind his town's most celebrated tall tale. "When legend becomes fact," the editor explains, "print the legend."

Mark Eitzel understands this sort of scenario all too well. Throughout his tumultuous 16-year career, first as frontman for the influential band American Music Club and more recently as a soloist, the San Francisco singer-songwriter has been both the beneficiary and the victim of his oh-so-tortured artist persona.

"Every time somebody writes about me, it comes across as nothing but self-loathing," he says. "It makes me look like a fool." Indeed, most accounts imply that Eitzel spends every waking hour drinking and crying. "I guess it's partially my own fault," he admits. "I do write these sad songs."

Describing Eitzel's songs as "sad," however, is like calling Hemingway's sentences "short": It's true, but the explanation falls laughably flat. Echoing Leonard Cohen, Brian Wilson and Hank Williams, Eitzel's lyrics are a surreal diary of heartbreak and decay: fluorescent hangovers, underwater cages of crutches and canes, fireflies fading from view. Fans of his grievous confessionals feel an uneasy sense of privilege, like anonymous friends to whom the singer has chosen to pour out his heart. Eitzel has even been known to break down in tears mid-performance.

Yet the melancholy of his lyrics is balanced with lacerating wit and nimble self-perception. "Every-thing I say sounds clumsy and dumb," he croons in one song. "But trying to make you feel better is like trying to trick Saint Peter."

Ever the critics' darling, Eitzel has chased commercial success like it was a permanent mirage. Signed to Warner Bros. in 1992, American Music Club was pegged for platinum-selling alternative stardom before breaking up two albums later, on the verge of being dropped after sales fell flat. Chances are AMC's blend of punk, folk, country and '60s pop was never destined for mainstream appeal, yet their meteoric rise to major-label status destined the band for an even harder fall.

Since his band's breakup, each of Eitzel's solo albums has explored a different musical territory: 1996's 60 Watt Silver Lining was Chet Baker incarnate, while two years later the Peter Buck-produced West sounded as if Eitzel was singing R.E.M. karaoke. Recorded while he was still on Warner Bros.--a "loss leader," as they say in the business--the latter album was a pressured attempt at commercial success. "Peter did all the music," Eitzel confirms. "I was just the singer."

Bringing Eitzel back to his roots, 1998's exquisite if verbosely titled Caught in a Trap and I Can't Back Out 'Cause I Love You Too Much Baby (his first for Matador Records) was recorded with mostly just vocals and acoustic guitar.

Now, after a three-year recording hiatus, this year's The Invisible Man reveals Eitzel's fascination with electronica. "It's like any genre: There's crap and there's good stuff," he says. "But I feel that good electronic music is really spiritual." Recorded entirely in his home with a Mac G4 and sampler, The Invisible Man returns Eitzel to his burgeoning role as producer, which began in the wake of American Music Club's implosion.

"I didn't have any authority," he recalls. "Granted, I was drunk a lot, but I knew how I wanted things to sound. Sometimes producers aren't trying to articulate the vision of the artist. They're trying to make the record company happy."

Invigorated by his newfound creative control, Eitzel has chosen to support his electronica-influenced album by hitting the road with more aggressive rock renderings of his songs. "I hope I don't piss people off, because it's definitely different," he says. "But too much indie rock has turned into Pat Boone. I wanted to get loud."

After spending two years on The Invisible Man, Eitzel has lately turned to recording fake commercial jingles, due out soon on two European compilations. "My manager is horrified, but I love them," he chuckles.

No matter which way he ventures, Eitzel will always be regarded as a gloomy troubadour, albeit a brilliant one. Even if the facts remain buried, at least the legend is secure.

Mark Eitzel

Aladdin Theatre 3017 SE Milwaukie Ave., 224-4400. 8 pm Wednesday, July 25. $12.

Mark Eitzel
The Invisible Man

Matador Records