“I liked the idea of a self-contained, endless pursuit of perfection,” Elliott Smith told the Boston Herald in May 2000, one month after the release of Figure 8. “But I have a problem with perfection,” he added. “I don’t think perfection is very artful.”
Not that that stopped him from pursuing it. Smith began his solo career in a basement, recording the demo tape that would ultimately become his debut album, Roman Candle; from then onward, every new album of his sounded more polished, more ornate than the one before. With XO – his fourth album, and first on a major label – he struck a delicate balance of stripped-down simplicity and studio splendor. And then he took another step toward studio splendor.
Outlier or creative peak?
Released on April 18, 2000, Smith’s fifth album, and the final one he completed in his lifetime, Figure 8 marked the moment when he fully embraced the possibilities of a proper studio and a major-label budget in pursuit of the perfect pop record. Depending on your view, it’s either his creative peak, or the outlier in his discography. The acoustic framework of its songs, which would have been songs all by themselves on an album like Elliott Smith or Either/Or, were now fleshed out with electric guitars, pianos, and strings. Save for the strings, and a few drum and bass parts, Smith played everything on the album himself.
Something fun to try while listening to Figure 8: imagine how these songs would have sounded on those earlier albums. That’s easy enough for the likes of “I Better Be Quiet Now” and “Somebody That I Used to Know,” which feature just Smith and his guitar, and “Everything Reminds Me of Her” and “Color Bars,” on which tape hiss might have stood in for the subtle instrumental flourishes of Figure 8. Cut the guitar solo from album opener “Son Of Sam,” or the extended coda from “Stupidity Tries,” and you can almost hear what Smith’s demos for the songs would have sounded like.
That said, “Son Of Sam” needs that guitar solo; it’s bristling and thrilling and gives the sense that Smith was tired of being called “fragile” and “sad” and “quiet” by critics. Later, the electric power-pop riffs of “LA” secure that song’s place on the very short list of post-Heatmiser songs on which it sounds like Smith was really rocking out. Some songs could have benefitted from a less-is-more approach – the jaunty saloon piano on “In The Lost And Found (Honky Bach)”/“The Roost,” like the song’s title, feels a bit unwieldy – but Smith’s ear for Beatlesque melodies remained evident with every note.
Songs that shimmer
That word, “Beatlesque,” comes up often when writing about Smith, who said he realized he wanted to become a musician upon hearing “The White Album” at the age of five, and nowhere was he more Beatlesque than on Figure 8. The album was even partially recorded at Abbey Road Studios, in London. All over Figure 8, Smith’s songwriting channels both The Beatles’ pop sensibilities and the experimental tendencies that colored their later work. If the piano-led psychedelia of “Everything Means Nothing To Me” doesn’t remind you of Abbey Road’s “Because” (the only Beatles song Smith ever covered in the studio), you’ll definitely get “Yesterday’ vibes out of “Somebody That I Used to Know” or hear similarities between “Dear Prudence” and “Pretty Mary K.” On songs like these, Figure 8 practically shimmers.
Two of the album’s best songs are also its most Beatles-influenced. “Can’t Make A Sound” is effectively Figure 8’s “A Day In The Life,” building on itself until it reaches its dazzling, string- and horn-laden climax. It’s a song that simply couldn’t have worked in a more stripped-down arrangement. Ditto the album’s lead single, “Happiness”: a gorgeous, galloping tune with a marching drumbeat, glowing organ, and a singalong outro that invites comparison to that of “Hey Jude”: “All I want now/Is happiness for you and me.” It would have been strange to hear those words coming from Smith on his earlier records, and not just because they would have sounded silly being whispered into a four-track recorder. Many of Smith’s songs on those records dealt with addiction and depression, offering no hope of happiness.
Artistry, perfection, and fame
Compared to those earlier albums, Figure 8 sounds more contented, if less personal. The bulk of its songs are written in the first person, but they feel much more impressionistic than the autobiographical “Son Of Sam,” “Pretty Mary K” and “LA.” When Smith does tell his own story on the album, he’s grappling with his rise to major-label stardom and its effects on his creativity, as on “Junk Bond Trader” and “Wouldn’t Mama Be Proud?.” “There’s a silver lining in the corporate cloud/And the pretty post that you’re taking as an NCO,” he seethes on the latter. When he sings “bored in the role, but he can’t stop” on “Can’t Make A Sound,” it’s clear he’s singing about himself.
Perhaps, eventually, Smith would have been able to reconcile his internal conflict between artistry, perfection, and fame, writing albums full of ambitious pop songs with happy endings, but it was not to be. After Figure 8, the addiction and depression that he had long struggled with worsened, pulling him into a black hole from which no music would emanate for three years. Smith’s journey, through life and music, was jagged and unidirectional, and it came to a premature end. But, true to its title, the musical world of Figure 8 feels endless, twisting and turning pop music upon itself into the strange and beautiful sounds its creator heard in his head.