Anyone familiar with my reviews will be far from surprised to hear that I’m a big Elliott Smith fan. Like Nick Drake before him Elliott was a deeply troubled soul who wore his heart on his sleeve, writing immensely cathartic alt-rock throughout a tragically brief solo career. Time and time again I find myself falling for artists like Smith, tortured beings who craft breathtaking records using their own blood and guts as the cement that sticks everything together. Over the course of seven albums (two of which were unfinished and released posthumously), Elliott put it all out there, for better or for worse, no-holds-barred, his songs like open wounds.
As with all great musical journeys I started at the beginning with his first two albums, Roman Candle and Elliott Smith. Although undeniably powerful and moving lo-fi indie masterpieces, this is music so singularly bleak in vision and unvaried in tone that as whole pieces I admittedly found them tough going at times. Nevertheless, stunning tracks like Drive All Over Town, Clementine and Southern Belle ensured I remained interested enough to continue the adventure. Happily for me (though to the dismay of many), Elliott’s sound began to expand on 1997’s Either/Or, while there was an altogether more seismic shift for the following year’s eclectic XO. Slowly but surely his work became broader, whilst retaining that bleak and fractured outlook that made him such an interesting artist. Along the way Smith even experienced an unexpected flirtation with the masses when his song Miss Misery picked up an Oscar nomination as part of the soundtrack to Good Will Hunting.
And so by the time his fifth album Figure 8 hit the shelves in April 2000 there was, arguably for the first time, a palpable sense of expectation from across the music industry. Fittingly, after years of plowing a slow but steady trail up from the underground, this was Elliott’s first conscious effort to break into the heavyweight arena.
Building on the evolving soundscapes of XO, in came a more polished production, intricate arrangements and, lo and behold, a tangible sense of fun amidst the ever-present lyrical darkness. Indeed opening track Son of Sam sounds like a statement of intent with its West Coast harmonies and honky-tonk piano. It’s about as breezy as he’d ever get, but just a glance at the words exposes cavernous cracks beneath the sheen. Comparing his muddled state of mind to that of 1970s serial killer David Berkowitz, Smith talks of a man with ‘‘a clouded mind’’, ‘‘acting under orders from above’’.
The folk pop of Somebody That I Used to Know also betrays its own chirpiness, its jerky acoustics at odds with what is essentially a dismissive goodbye to an ex lover. ‘‘I had tender feelings that you made hard’’ he sighs through charmingly wonky vocals. There’s a collage of flavors to be enjoyed with In The Lost and Found (Honky Bach)/The Roost: ‘‘I’m alone, but that’s ok. I don’t mind most of the time, I don’t feel afraid to die’’. Addressing a sweetheart called Angelina from a typically purgatorial Smith-state, it’s a beguiling little slab of chamber pop.
Elsewhere a handful of fantastic rockers are so effortlessly radio-friendly you sense he could have knocked this kind of stuff out straight from day one if he’d been so inclined. Wouldn’t Mama Be Proud boasts real momentum with its driving guitars, Bossa nova drums and honeyed organ, while L.A. is a bleary-eyed tip of the hat to California’s least loved metropolis. ‘‘Good morning all, it’s a beautiful day’’ he sings on a track that has him ‘‘walking in the sun’’ and ‘‘living in the day’’. But the pick of the bunch is the brilliant Junk Bond Trader, which sees our hero positively snarling as he rips into the music industry and the associated pressures that come with being signed to a major label. ‘‘Give the people something they’d understand’’ he mocks, while he closes the track with a sneering ‘‘better sell it while you can’’. There are also references to his heroin addiction, days where he observed ‘‘people digging through rubble for things they can resell’’. Miserable imagery and yet in the same breath he’s telling a would-be savior ‘‘I won’t take your medicine, I don’t need your remedy’’.
Among the album’s gorgeous ballads stands the Beatlesy Pretty Mary K, which could have been teleported straight from Revolver, while Everything Reminds Me of Her is bathed in a similarly shimmering beauty. Then comes Everything Means Nothing to Me, with its Day in the Life-ish meanderings, including tinkling piano, an ascending chorus and a woozy spiraling outro that wouldn’t sound out of place on Radiohead’s Amnesiac.
Converts of Elliott’s early stripped down material need look no further than the bare-bones balladry of I Better be Quiet Now and Easy Way Out. ‘‘I have become a silent movie’’ he confesses flatly on the menacing Can’t Make a Sound, which starts off all raw but eventually climbs into a full orchestra, a sweeping crescendo doused in crashing cymbals and overloaded guitars. If ever you find yourself stranded in a remote log cabin watching a violent storm unleash a hellish fury, you’d be hard pushed to find a more appropriate soundtrack.
There are more stirring arrangements on the French horn flavored Stupidity Tries, a comment on the futility of fame and success, a track which in many ways serves as Figure 8’s spiritual anchor. ‘‘Got a foot in the door, god knows what for’’ he says about his burgeoning reputation. And while most artists in his position would be excited and expectant, Elliott simply admits ‘‘I couldn’t think of a thing that I hope tomorrow brings’’.
There’s a firm belief among sections of Smith’s fan base that Figure 8 represents his weakest work, with some even going as far to accuse him of selling out. For me it’s a lazy slur to throw at someone who a) simply doesn’t sound quite like they used to and b) starts to enjoy more success. Production puritans meanwhile seem unable to accept an artist’s right to grow, to infuse one’s influences more consciously, explore new ways of connecting with audiences. It’s as if Smith was only permitted to channel lo-fi stripped back misery, exclusively for their gratification.
While Figure 8 is definitely his most accessible and commercial collection of songs, I think this in no way prevents it from standing out as his most diverse work. This was a period when Elliott’s creative juices were in overdrive, a time where he aimed for the stars and began firing on all cylinders. It’s not selling out because at no point did he try to make the kind of music he thought people wanted to hear. He simply continued to broaden his horizons, while retaining the dark elements that make Elliott Smith… well, Elliott Smith. It’s also an LP that sees him embrace his artistic growth and blooming popularity, but at the same time concede to the emptiness and pointlessness of it all. For anyone who knows what happened next, it’s impossible not to be swept up by the raw emotions that pulse through the album.
For those unfamiliar with Smith’s heartbreaking story, the long and short of it is this: Figure 8 was the last studio record he’d complete and over the following three years his various addictions spiraled out of control and his depression deepened, concluding with his suicide in October 2003. Having stabbed himself in the heart with a knife, a brief goodbye scribbled on a post-it note read: I’m so sorry – love, Elliott. God forgive me.
Choice Quote: There’s something I like about the image of a skater going in this endless twisted circle that doesn’t have any real endpoint. So the object is not to stop or arrive anywhere, it’s just to make this thing as beautiful as they can”. – Elliott Smith talking about why he named the album Figure 8.
Choice Lyric: “The spin of the earth impaled a silhouette of the sun on the steeple. And I gotta hear the same sermon all the time now, from you people ’’ – From Everything Reminds Me Of Her.
Like this? Smith’s work has inspired a multitude of today’s bands. For a taste of his legacy check out Infinite Arms by Band of Horses, or the work of singer-songwriter Samuel Beam, AKA Iron & Wine.
For more of my musical musings have a leaf through my other album reviews.