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Elliott Smith’s Figure 8 album 20th anniversary: more questions than answers

Elliott Smith’s Figure 8 uncovered the hallmarks of a flawed genius and Simon Kirk looks back at the final album before his untimely death. 

The late Steven Paul “Elliott” Smith was part indie king part throwback.

From The Beatles to Big Star, Elliott Smith brushed shoulders with his influences during a period where such bands were very much against the grain in ’90s pop culture circles.

After the brief hangover from grunge, the latter part of Smith‘s solo career was met with a myriad of mediocrity in the way of cheap pop, nu-metal and equally disposal street-rap artists.

A time where record labels had one last scramble to make a quick buck through physical product to consumer.

In true Elliott Smith fashion, he wasn’t influenced by what was happening around him, going on to produce some of the most heartfelt music of this period and had he not sadly parted from this world, I’m certain he would have been one of the most revered artists of these times.

He is revered, of course, but we would have undoubtedly garnered far more treasure from his ceaseless talents.

Rewinding just for a moment to Elliott Smith‘s humble artistic beginnings, when there was still a thriving indie scene across America.

This was particularly so on the West Coast and in Smith‘s native Portland at the time, where the burgeoning singer-songwriter released his debut album, Roman Candle, along with his self-titled sophomore which landed a year later in 1995.

Elliott Smith

In between his solo endeavours, Smith was also in the brilliant Heatmiser, who alongside band mates and close friends Neil Gust (No. 2) and Sam Coomes (Quasi), released three albums, including the 1993 underground cult classic, Dead Air.

With Heatmiser disbanding in 1996, a year later Smith followed-up his self-titled Kill Rock Stars solo album with arguably his greatest feat in Either/Or.

Despite the aforementioned influx of music tailored for muscle and misogyny giving rise to bro culture, oddly enough, Smith‘s stock was at its highest.

His work offered an emotive juxtaposition, Smith occupying a space alongside the likes of Belle and Sebastian and Neutral Milk Hotel.

The gorgeous laments of Either/Or caught the ear of film producer, Gus Van Sant, and from this moment, the singer-songwriter’s world changed considerably.

What followed was an Academy Award nomination for Miss Misery, Smith‘s feature track in Vant Sant‘s era-defining film, Good Will Hunting, starring Matt Damon and Ben Affleck.

Smith was lifted into another stratosphere, sharing the stage with other nominees Celine Dion and Trisha Yearwood. Arguably, the moment still stands as one of the strangest artist encounters in Academy Award history.

Smith‘s major label debut through DreamWorks, XO, followed and with it troubles of alcohol abuse and fame, which plagued him throughout the latter part of his journey.

With these new found circumstances, many of his closest friends who had been there from the start such as Gust, Coomes, Janet Weiss (also of Quasi and formerly of Sleater-Kinney), Marc Swanson and Joanna Bolme (Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks), slowly made way for a new insularity of people involved with Smith‘s new record label.

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Once an easily accessible soul, suddenly Smith was coddled like a rock star and, always at odds with this lifestyle, the only way he could seemingly deal with this new situation was by pushing away those closest to him.

While hindsight is a wonderful thing, stardom is far from a comfortable place for gentle-hearted or self-conscious individuals. Particularly for a person who had spent a lifetime exorcising past demons.

From afar it wouldn’t be disingenuous to suggest that Smith was an extremely pensive soul, anxious at how his fame was perceived particularly by those closest to him. He couldn’t come to grips on why his friends’ bands – like Quasi – weren’t sharing the same same level of success as himself.

After signing to DreamWorks, Smith told friend and journalist, Laura Vogel in a mostly unpublished interview in 1998 (snippets appeared in the publication, Elle):

“It’s a happy accident… [It] makes some things harder, but doesn’t really come close to making it not worth it. It distracts your attention all of the time. It’s easier to play music if you don’t constantly think about how you’re perceived by people.”

In a roundabout way, it’s a line often spun by artists who have gone from indie stardom to major labels.

Despite the troubles that began to unravel more and more, including Smith‘s brief stint at a rehab facility in Arizona, 1998’s XO was massive statement.

And because of this his next outing was always going to be a hard act to follow, coupled with the realities that his creative powers were arguably impinged by fame and substance abuse, which would worsen considerably after Figure 8.

Following the XO tour in 1998, Smith moved from New York to Los Angles, reconvening with his go-to producers, Rob Schnapf and Tom Rothrock, to begin recording Figure 8.

Like XO, Figure 8 was recorded in Hollywood at Sunset Sound as well periodic sessions at Sonora and Capitol studios.

There was also a brief sojourn across the Atlantic to London’s Abbey Road Studios where Smith is said to have played on the piano which featured on The BeatlesPenny Lane.

Perhaps the most iconic aspect of Figure 8 is its artwork where Smith stands in front of a painting located in Sunset Boulevard which has since become his memorial.

The picture was taken by photographer and film director Autumn de Wilde, who has since released a stunning collection of photography in her book entitled Elliott Smith.

De Wilde also directed the video for the Figure 8‘s second single and opening track, Son of Sam, and made her feature film debut earlier this year with Emma.

The wall was partially damaged in 2017, due to the opening of a shop inside the building the wall is a part of. It has since been restored.

Figure 8 wall (Photo documentingthirtydays license CC BY-NC 2.0)

Onto Figure 8 and the large canyon-wide arrangements and strings that found their way onto XO very much remain.

Figure 8‘s second single, Son of Sam, kicks things off with those distinctive echoes of piano that were exclusively Elliott Smith‘s for the latter part of the ’90s. Maybe longer. They eventually make way for an expansive showering of power-pop that lays the foundation of what we can expect for the remaining 60 minutes.

Somebody That I Used to Know is a nervous up tempo folk number that provides a snapshot of the ambiguities that are scattered all throughout Figure 8.

“Somebody that I of used to know/I had tender feelings that you made hard/But it’s your heart, not mine, that’s scarred/So when I go home, I’ll be happy to go/You’re just somebody…”

It’s another example of Smith pushing away his closest allies and the more Figure 8 goes on, these messages become more prominent.

Junk Bond Trader hits its mark both lyrically and musically.

“Now I’m a policeman directing traffic/Keeping everything moving, everything static/I’m the hitchhiker you’ll recognising passing on your way to save everlasting/Better sell it while you can.”

Smith always created peculiar composites to mask his own intricacies and experiences and here is one of his best on Figure 8.

With faint acoustics and Smith‘s harnessing of that electric sound, Schnapf and Rothrock merge these aspects and execute it perfectly on Junk Bond Trader.

Which brings us to the darkest moments which cast shadows over both Elliott Smith and Figure 8, firstly with Everything Reminds of Her.

“I never really had a problem because of leaving/But everything reminds me of her this evening/
So if I seem a little out of it/Sorry/But why should I lie/Everything reminds me of her.”

Not quite enough to slice through the bone – perhaps the most salient moment of the song and indeed on Figure 8 follows.

“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/Why are you staring into outer space crying/Just because you came across it and lost it.”

Put simply, it’s a heartbreaking unmasked memorandum to those who loved Smith the most and tried to guide him towards some kind of solace and sobriety before circumstances escalated.

It’s a terribly tough song to stomach and one that you feel was written in pure misguided anguish.

Everything Means Nothing To Me follows and is an equally stirring encounter that is nothing short of a lost soul lament designed by somebody woozily dancing towards the ends of the earth. A sombre sketch of a lone wolf drinking at a bar where last orders simply don’t apply.

Everything Means Nothing To Me is equally disturbing and beautiful in its masqueraded darkness. It’s hard to listen to this song without forming a hazy hindsight, due to Smith‘s patently disturbing missives.

That feather-light angel piano that’s suddenly overpowered by big-rock drum fills and forty seconds worth of dramatic synths. It’s uplifting as much as it is sinking.

Or as Smith sings in Junk Bond Trader. “Everything moving, everything static.”

L.A. is Smith channelling his inner Neil Young, but still producing his own source of swirling reverb with those saccharine remnants of power-pop.

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The lone traveller-esque blues during Lost and Found provide another poignant moment with those idiosyncratic whirls of piano slowly reaching every corner of your mind. So raw and empowering, it wouldn’t be a surprise to learn that the song was recorded in one take.

Easy Way Out is a track any modern day coffee-house strummer or beard oil merchant would dream of writing.

Again, like Everything Means Nothing To Me, without the prescience at the time, now Easy Way Out filters the murkiness of Smith‘s state of mind at the time.

“There’s no escape for you except in someone else/Although you’ve already disappeared within yourself/The invisible man who’s always changing clothes/It’s all about taking the easy way out for you I suppose.”

Again, it’s Smith channelling his own emotions through life-defeated protagonists. As a listener, yet another shake-your-head-in-sorrow moment.

Pretty Mary K is the strangest moment of Figure 8. Some may say it’s the finest, too. The timing signatures are infinitely odd, with a backdrop of eerie organs that just about carry Smith‘s voice.

In some ways it sums up Figure 8 and the turbulence surrounding Smith.

Pretty Mary K was a track written years before, but not released. Many say that the previous version of the song was one of Smith‘s deepest moments as a songwriter and the closest he came to writing about a real person – his mother, Bunny Kay, being referenced.

The unreleased version was far more stripped back, containing acoustic, double-tracked vocals and an organ that contained a looped single note. Its subject referencing Christianity and suicide rather than the wounded soldier in St. James Infirmary which features on the Figure 8 version.

Can’t Make A Sound is a big-time rocker with luscious strings and equally charming tremolo. You could imagine Smith‘s painfully nervous mind struggling with the encounter of such a seismic shift in sound. Aside from his alleged self-doubt, Schnapf and Rothrock knew the inner-workings of Smith‘s artistic make-up and the trio coexist perfectly on this track.

At the time, Figure 8 was met with mixed reviews.

Checkout.com exploded with superlatives, calling it a “sweeping, gorgeous masterwork”.

However, New York Magazine wasn’t so kind, suggesting that Figure 8 was filled with “self-pitying complaints of an adolescent venting in his diary.”

Reviews were a concoction of a slow-burn euphoria and pitying adulation for one of music’s shining beacons of our generation. There aren’t many better examples of this than Pitchfork, who at the time gave Figure 8 a 6.9. The album still featured in the publication’s Top 200 albums of the 2000s.

The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle.

Figure 8 is filled with large-hearted melodies that are drenched in dirty blues reverb and beautiful orchestral arrangements and, coupled with its marrow-deep lyrical content, it’s quite easy as to why Smith‘s staunchest followers didn’t take shine to the album like his previous works.

Perhaps it was the bombastic production approach which overshadowed the naked intimacy of albums such as Roman Candle and Either/Or. Or, given its haunting lyrical content, perhaps it was too much of a burden to shoulder for many. It was probably a little bit of both.

On reconnecting, Figure 8 is indeed a hard album to stomach from front-to-back, but make no mistake – some of Smith‘s finest moments as a recording artist are right here.

It was another string to the bow of a touchstone artist that paved the way for this never ending deluge of weather-beaten troubadours that continue to drop from the conveyor belt. From the time of his death even to now, you can’t read more than 10 artist press releases without at least two referencing the influence of Elliott Smith.

That’s the indelible mark he left us. A highly significant voice of his generation and he didn’t know it nor would he have much cared. Smith was always spooked by fame and in the end gave up fighting against that tide of rising adulation.

It’s difficult to measure the success of something made by someone who is no longer with us. Whilst dark, it’s true that praise is easier directed to those who are no longer around to accept it.

These opinions are neither right nor wrong. Slightly factual mixed with fiction. Both aspects are just jaded demonstrations of what it is to be human.

And that’s what Elliott Smith was. A human.

A human too fragile to sustain the rigours of the fame his voice eventually found, first with Either/Or through to Figure 8 – an album that probably asks more questions than provides answers.

Above all, though, Figure 8 is an Elliott Smith album and as a listener we should have been content with that 20 years ago. We should even be more content with that fact right now.

By Simon Kirk

Product from the happy generation. Proud purple bin owner surviving on music, books and LFC. New book, Welcome To Charmsville, available from all major vendors.

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