Elliott Smith – Figure 8
I don’t think there will ever be a song that can transport me to so many places simultaneously as Figure 8’s opener “Son of Sam.” That crunchy guitar melody, the perfectly timed drums, the bouncy piano lead, and most of all Smith’s angelic vocals, the kind of soft yet instantly recognizable, instantly memorable wisp that could call to mind so many emotions without going overboard. It’s a song about a serial killer, although of course I only had the foggiest clue of that when I first heard it – as with many of Elliott’s songs, even the simplest, most direct lyric requires more than a few spins to fully unravel. Like “Son of Sam,” Figure 8 is at once Smith’s most accessible and immediate record, yet, like everything else in his obscenely consistent discography, one that keeps on giving as the years pass and the vinyl scratches get deeper. It’s the soundtrack to my parents’ disintegrating marriage and decades-long divorce; my bible when I was first learning to track my own drum playing along with my favorite records; the only CD I’ve had to buy three copies of from constantly wearing them down. By 8th grade I was getting sucked into radio rock like Linkin Park and whatever made me look like a badass, but what song did I come home and play right after my first real kiss? “In The Lost and Found,” obviously. Elliott may have been the pits when it came to his own love life, but I’ll be damned if I’d found any artist, now or then, who spoke more directly to my heart than he did.
I first heard Figure 8 near the end of 5th grade when my oldest sister gave me a copy. Stop for a second and picture the absurdity of a twelve-year-old listening to Elliott, an artist whose most popular topics included drug addiction and gnawing depression. Of course, I had only the vaguest of ideas concerning what he was singing about. The magic was in the sound, how Elliott’s superbly written and mixed arrangements came together into some of the purest songwriting my little prepubescent ears had ever heard. I had always loved the Beatles, and some part of me saw their huge influence in Smith’s own melodic gifts, but he took things to the next level. Songs like “L.A.,” with its faintly alt-country guitar lick and cavernous drumming, or “Everything Means Nothing To Me,” all crashing drums, tinkling piano, and haunting strings, spoke to me with the sheer power of their hooks, redefining the simple verse-chorus-verse pleasures the Beatles had given me with something new and exciting, something I could never predict. Elliott had always had this knack, but it was never the focus in his earlier records (records, I should mention, that I didn’t even get around to until high school – Figure 8 was more than enough for me), and XO had its fair share of ups and downs. On Figure 8, everything came together with nary a wasted note, from light yet intricate acoustic numbers like “Somebody That I Used To Know” that showcased his incredible playing abilities to full-blown epics like “Can’t Make A Sound.”
It wasn’t until I grew older and delved deeper into typical teenage angst that I began to appreciate Elliott’s work on a more well rounded basis. I’m talking, of course, about his lyrics, words that run the gamut from German actor Bruno Schleinstein to New York murderers to Franklin D. Roosevelt, people and metaphors that Elliott routinely turned to in his latter albums to cover up and mask his own significant problems. One of my great regrets in life is not seeing Elliott live, although during his Figure 8 tour he was a mess, forgetting lyrics, mumbling through performances, unable to string together even the simplest of coherent messages. It made the lyrics even more tragic, despite Figure 8’s reputation as his “happiest” record – the clear pain the man was going through during its recording and support makes a lyric like “I couldn’t think of a thing / that I hope tomorrow brings” from “Stupidity Tries” such a striking red flag. “Happiness” is so goddamn heartrending, so crushingly sad in the context of what happened to Smith that even though I always want to feel good after listening to it I just can’t. What does it say about a guy who wrote his most earnest, straightforward lyrics deep in the midst of his own addiction and self-loathing? All I feel is unyielding sadness every time I listen to it, the unfortunate fact that a man who was able to make such brilliant music couldn’t help himself out of a hole he’s helped thousands crawl out himself.
But the music will always remain, and good God could I go on and on about the music: the jangly piano and oddball concluding refrain of “Junk Bond Trader;” my high school yearbook quote in “Pretty Mary K” (“here’s what you get / for things that haven’t happened yet”) and the breathless way Elliott delivers it; how the part where he sings “if I send you postcards from the side of the road / photographs of moving parts about to implode / if I called to keep it together like you say I know I can do / to transmit the moment from me to you” on “Wouldn’t Mama Be Proud” is probably in my top ten musical moments of all time; a million other things I can never really fully describe to someone who hasn’t heard them. Because it’s always been about the feeling with Elliott, his enviable ability to bare his own soul and in doing so reveal things about myself I never would have found otherwise. I’ll never hear a new Elliott Smith record, never have that anticipation I last experienced when New Moon came out (and even then it wasn’t the same), and I’ll never hear him perform some of my favorite songs live. But I’ll have this record, and Roman Candle, and Either/Or, and all of his releases, and I won’t regret a single second of it, because music this timeless, this universal, only comes around once in a long while. This should be treasured.
R.I.P. Elliott 1969-2003.
Elliott Smith – “Happiness”
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Release date April 18, 2000.