Misunderstanding Figure 8

Published in FasterLouder, 17 April 2015

I was working at a record store when Figure 8 was released, an outpost of a particularly grotesque music retail chain that fed off club culture and the Top 40 charts, with token sections devoted to Christian hymnals and country music, and a random assortment of indie rock. It seemed illustrative that Elliott Smith’s fifth album was delivered in bulk to our shop and racked up beside Britney Spears and Linkin Park, because the general consensus about Figure 8 – at least amongst Elliott Smith fans – was that it was a hollow, wanly upbeat and too-commercial album.

At the time, the critical response to the record was warm, but it seemed to rely on a long-established affection for Smith’s work rather than freshly stoked enthusiasm. Rolling Stone compared Figure 8 to The Beatles but didn’t quite seem sure that it was truly great; Pitchfork dithered about whether the album constituted Smith’s least-inspired music or his best. Perhaps most telling, Spin felt the need to clarify that “the record is not a disappointment, it’s a progression.” It didn’t feel like a progression, but it was a problem of tone. While Smith’s craft had expanded, his sadness was obfuscated behind Figure 8’s many sunny, whimsical melodies. As much as we loved him, we preferred him to sound miserable.

From Roman Candle (1994) through Elliott Smith (1995) and his masterpiece Either/Or (1997), the Texas-bred, Portland-based singer had won a cult-like following with albums of close-whispered suffering. For me, he never suffered more beautifully than on Between the Bars: “Drink up baby, stay up all night with the things you could do, you won’t but you might. The potential you’ll be, that you’ll never see. The promises you’ll only make.” At best, his frail voice was close to breaking over the strongs of an acoustic guitar. Even when the rhythm picked up, on other early songs, his voice stayed soft and full of sorrow.

In early 1998, Smith played Miss Misery at the Oscars, his contribution to the Good Will Hunting soundtrack. With dirty hair and an ill-fitting white suit, he was the picture of inconsolable indie discomfort. Later that year he released his first major label album, XO (1998), and while it was polished, warm and flushed with the odd string arrangement, it was still both fragile and intimate. (Helpfully, it included the some of best songs of his career in Waltz #2, Sweet Adeline and Pitseleh.)

Then, in 2000, came Figure 8. By the time he came to record it, Smith had decamped from Portland to Brooklyn, then relocated to Los Angeles. When I read about his move to LA, while listening to the record, it seemed kind of suspect. The album had an energy and enthusiasm that pushed against the downtrodden gloom of his previous work, an energy that was alienating to me. Son of Sam, Figure 8’s opening salvo, was a downright jaunty tune, full of chunky electric guitars, soaring vocal harmonies and a dancing, honky tonk piano line. Junk Bond Trader was similarly breezy; L.A. rolled and dropped in an epic, hook-heavy chorus. Even the ballads had a bounce in their step. Somebody That I Used To Know recounts the death of a relationship at a sprightly pace and the double-tracked vocals of I Better Be Quiet Now put its sad heart at a safe distance. Easy Way Out, I don’t know, I think it was just too pretty.

I assumed, irrationally, that the LA sunshine had made Smith happier. Figure 8 was a measured and more sonically complex album, but lyrically, it was no lighter than his previous work. He compares himself to a serial killer, sings about the existential void at the heart of his success and makes more than one reference to suicide on this record. The period in which he recorded the album was reportedly one of the most troubled in his life; Smith was reportedly addicted to heroin, alienating friends, increasingly paranoid and intermittently severely depressed. And it only got worse.

Because I hadn’t heard the raw bones of his emotions on Figure 8, and probably more prosaically because he was out of album cycle, my love for Elliott Smith was dormant when I heard that he had died. He stabbed himself through the heart in his Echo Park home on October 21, 2003 – a grossly poetic end. He was an incredibly troubled man, thought to have been the victim of sexual abuse as a child, medicated for depression, anxiety and ADHD. Of course he hadn’t just moved town and made sudden recovery after years of well-documented mental health issues. It’s just that his art had become marginally less personal.

Symbolically, it’s ironic that Smith’s “happiest” record was the last one he released before he killed himself, but of course the truth is a lot more complicated than symbols will allow. What is interesting is how Smith’s death made people revisit the album, slowly elevating it over time until it became thought of as one of his best. Rolling Stone gave Figure 8 three and a half stars on release but named it the 42nd best album of the 2000s, calling it a “haunted high-water mark.” Pitchfork, who rated it 6.9 on release, later called it, “one of Smith’s most accessible and enjoyable records.”

I returned to Figure 8 because it was the last album, because nothing (complete) would follow. Over time, I was able to process the fact that not being lo-fi was not necessarily a fault. I was able to appreciate that the album was superbly crafted, full of lush harmonics and ambitious arrangements that underpinned perfect, memorable hooks. What had first sounded middle of the road opened up in a rich, detailed field of sound.

And afterwards, on reflection, it was interesting to think about Elliott Smith’s restraint. It’s brave to pour the sick, sad whole of yourself into music, into songs that are heartbreaking and fragile, and I am grateful for every album on which Smith laid himself out. But there is something fascinating about holding back, too. So much damage, isolation and despair is documented on Figure 8, but it is subverted in the music, transformed into something weightless and lovely. The lightness of touch from the fingers of a broken man, that’s what stayed with me in the end.