‘Figure 8’: How Elliott Smith Turned Pop Music Upon Itself
The final album Elliott Smith completed in his lifetime, ‘Figure 8’ saw the formerly lo-fi songwriter go pop, to dazzling effect.
“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.
Listen to Figure 8 on Apple Music and Spotify.
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.
April 19, 2020 at 9:50 am
Thank you for this article. I’m a Boomer who has always been interested in new music but apart from one or two songs, Elliott’s music seems to have avoided my radar, until now.
April 19, 2020 at 2:54 pm
How dare you? The piano on “In the Lost and Found(Honky Bach)” is perfect and the title is cheeky in a very Elliott kind of way.
June 22, 2020 at 9:05 pm
It might be 20 years further into the future before the reverb from this album is finally fully felt. Like the current 20-somethings who resurrected Neutral Milk Hotel’s Airplane Over the Sea album, I think in 10 years, the 20 somethings then will hold this album up as something to aspire to. It’s still difficult for me to reconcile in my head how something like this album came, basically, from one person’s head, heart and hands. The depth and intelligence required is mind boggling. Save for a couple of bangers, Elliott is not an “easy” listen, much like a good psychological thriller movie is not an easy watch, but if you take the time to patiently ingest what he’s telling and musically giving, it is so fulfilling. There’s a point where the disturbing feeling you get from listening to his music clicks into place and is replaced with understanding, much like when learning a new language “clicks” when you finally start thinking in the new language instead of just translating it into your native tongue.