His third best album.
While XO sometimes suffered (“Question Mark”; “I Didn’t Understand”) but mostly benefitted (“Waltz #2 (XO)”; “Bled White”) from Elliott Smith’s newfound bombast brought on by signing onto a major record label, Figure 8 mostly suffers and only sometimes benefits. Do you know why Elliott Smith and Either/Or are so acclaimed? Because of their intimacy – they might not have been much arrangement-wise, but Elliott Smith spoke to thousands of people who shared his depression. I’m guessing he’s still depressed here (sample song titles: “You’re Just Somebody That I Used to Know”; “Everything Reminds Me of Her”; “Everything Means Nothing to Me”), but the arrangements never speak to it because they’re often too colorful for their own good (being colorful on its own is not inherently a bad thing) (ie. see the random wordless vocal hook of “Son of Sam”) or because his lyricism only sometimes hits its mark (ie. see the placeholders in between the mantra of “Everything Means Nothing to Me” and how he breaks up the phrases so unnaturally).
Pitchfork’s Ryan Schreiber outlines a couple more of Figure 8’s flaws in his review (seriously, one of the best things produced from that site during their darkest incarnation), “16 Elliott Smith songs is a lot to plow through […] even 16 of his greatest tracks would be a task.” Yup. Except, Figure 8 isn’t comprised of 16 of his greatest tracks (18, if you count the two instrumentals tacked onto two of them – what were the point of those?); some are forgettable and others are flawed (though I’ll say that none of them are outright bad). “In the Lost and Found (Honky Bach) / The Roost” is an interesting composition that changes things up (I would argue that Elliott Smith and Either/Or were themselves flawed because of their monotony), but it has me reaching for Elton John’s better compositions of the same style (I’ll also mention here that Elton John wrote some tunes that were just as emotionally direct as some of Elliott Smith’s, but no one’s heard “I Think I’m Going to Kill Myself” because it was never included on a compilation). Closer “Reverb” – oops, I mean “Bye” – is one of those pretty but pretty useless tracks; it’s a shame it closes the album since “Can’t Make A Sound”’s closing mantra “Why should you want another when you’re a world within a world” would have been a wonderful and positive way to end the album (the people who tell you to replace “Bye” with Son of Sam b-side “Figure 8” are just trading an instrumental throwaway for a throwaway with lyrics).
Elsewhere, Schreiber details, “‘Pretty Mary K’ sums up Figure 8 most ably. It carries the burden of that “wall of Schnapf” reverb overdrive, and is a shining example of Smith’s sometimes lumbering songwriting which, in its attempts to remain original, can become unbearably random-sounding– a problem that plagues this record from start to finish.” Yup. For example, while I’m fond of what the electric guitar is doing on “Everything Reminds Me of Her,” his singing (how he squeezes certain words out because he doesn’t have the power to sing them normally) bothers me to now end. Meanwhile, once you’ve heard Sufjan Stevens’ own (and better arranged and more affecting – oh my god) song about a serial killer and how he is “just like him” (no doubt influenced by this track down to that very lyric), you’ve no use for “Son of Sam” anymore.
Yeah, I’m a cynic who loves picking at the weak parts of albums but I also know that negativity is tiring, so let’s talk about the good stuff here. “Somebody That I Used to Know” sees Elliott Smith returning to his acoustic guitar and vox format that was such a success in the past, but this time there’s a wonderful and unheard bounce to it (and the way Smith sings “But its your heart not mine that’s scarred” is nicely affecting; the way he sings the last word reveals his sass as fake). You can also add “Easy Way Out” to your reconstructed Figure 8 playlist for its vocal harmonies (and the way he drops them all for the final line was a neat-o trick); maybe “LA” for having brief flashes of power pop-inspired guitar; “I Better Be Quiet Now” for its great bridge and lyrical simplicity (again, a rarity here) and “Color Bars” for having one of the best melodies on the album (being directed into a crescendo and subsequent diminuendo, despite being only 2 minutes in length, doesn’t hurt its chances). If you’re tech-savvy enough, cut “The Gondola Man” off “Happiness” and it’s silly closing lyrics too, and you’d have a 3-minute song with a great interplay between guitar and bass and some of the album’s finest lyrics (“Activity’s killing the actor / And a cop’s standing out in the road / Turning traffic away;” “He made his life a lie / So he might never have to know anyone”; “While her memory worked in reverse / To keep her safe from herself”). I’ve already talked about “Can’t Make a Sound”’s great closing lyric, so I’ll just mention here that it’s other lyrics are also good (“The slow motion moves me / The monologue means nothing to me”) and the build-up is nice too, and centerpiece “Wouldn’t Mama Be Proud” has a lot of things going for it: one of the better hooks on the album, a high note on the guitar that lingers after the hook; bossa nova drums that give it momentum.
Anyway, while I’ve already derided the lyrics to “Everything Means Nothing to Me,” it is my favorite song here. I like the splashes of color by the piano (ie. the introducing measure or the one that bridges the first two stanzas), the climbing melody of the mantra, and while I praised “Color Bars” for its crescendo and diminuendo, I’ll say that the one here is so much more tangible – you can practically touch it; the introduction of the drums and strings help the aforementioned melody climb even more. Those added instruments are exactly (no more, no less) the sort of thing I want to hear from a major record incarnation of Elliott Smith – it’s just a shame you don’t hear them much anywhere else on Figure 8.