This one is difficult because of the artist’s story – and thus, the stigma attached to it.
My original editorial decision was to acknowledge that Elliott Smith committed suicide 10 years ago this October. That he left behind a legacy as one of the best singer-songwriters of our generation, no matter the circumstances of his death. And that it’s ironic a track like “Easy Way Out” appears on Figure 8, the last release before his demise.
But, unfortunate reality check: it’s impossible to not focus on the pink elephant. I will once again call back to the fact that this project has me discovering albums I’d forgotten were so good. Figure 8 is sincere but frank – and, ultimately, heartbreaking. Because it had been some time since I spun tracks like “Color Bars” and “Everything Means Nothing to me,” it had escaped me that this fragile man and his guitar could produce such powerful works.
With 15 full-length tracks and a gorgeous, sub-2 minute instrumental, Figure 8 is made up of so much goodness that it’s… almost overwhelming. Take, for example, the album’s trio of openers: “Son of Sam” is followed by “Somebody That I Used to Know” and “Junk Bond Trader.” Later, “LA.” precedes “In the Lost and Found” and “Stupidity Tries.” Hard to knock on an album with multiple clusters of some of the most sincere songs you’ll put in your ears (today, at least).
And in this case, it’s almost unnecessary. Smith’s acoustic guitar prowess is a marvel – the way he commands it and makes his instrument sing. His lyrics, though, are evident of frequent alcohol and heroin binges. They’re depressing, and there’s no way around that. Such is the paradox that was Elliott Smith: gifted musician, but an addict.
Take for example, this passage from “Everything Means Nothing to Me” –
I picked up the song
And found my picture in the paper
The reflection in the water shouted
Are you men still trying to salute
People from a time when he was
Everything he’s supposed to be
Everything means nothing to me
So genuine, but so depressing.
In preparation for this post, I read a terrible and sad rumor (purported to be the truth, but I don’t know that there would be a way to verify the following) about Smith: that, following the release of Figure 8, he was burning through something like $1500 worth of heroin and crack… a day. I have never had even the slightest inkling to use a hard drug, so I can’t even fathom the dependence on such a substance.
Also, contrary to… almost no one’s belief, this is not the original version of “Somebody That I Used to Know” that Gotye covered. This version is different, and in my opinion, superior, mostly because of the reliance on a conventional, organic instrument. Nothing against the Gotye version though, considering it sold a bajillion copies.
For me, all of Elliott Smith’s albums are now tainted; not just because he passed, but the way it happened as well. But I will say this: no matter the critical reception for this album, I feel it’s a more solid release than Either/Or and XO. There are few tracks on here that I didn’t feel drawn to like I did when I first discovered Elliott Smith.
From his classic release Figure 8, this is a live version of the late Elliott Smith’s “Color Bars” –
Standout tracks: “Bye” (perfection); “Son of Sam”; “L.A.”; “In The Lost And Found (Honky Bach)/The Roost” – and I never knew its full title, sheesh; “Stupidity Tries”; “Happiness/The Gondola Man” – I mean, really.
Weakest track: “Pretty Mary K” – can’t all be perfect all the time. “Everything Reminds Me of Her” gets on my nerves too.
RIYL: Singer-songwriters, alt folk. David Bazan, Dustin Kensrue, Andy Hull, Conor Oberst.