Elliott Smith – Figure 8

Elliott Smith
Figure 8

Musically, Figure 8 picks up its stride directly from XO, Smith’s previous (and excellent) release – angry, at times shimmering pop music. On their own, the harmonious interplay between Smith’s lilting voice and the rockin’ sunny-afternoon guitar (and piano and string arrangements) reveal him as a worthy heir to the Alex Chilton/Big Star throne. But Smith’s music has far more of an edge to it than these previous pop-masters. Whereas songs like Big Star’s “September Gurls” and “Way Out West” possessed wistful hints of longing just beneath their shiny surfaces, a prickly, embittered lyricism punctures Smith’s recordings, giving Figure 8 a delirious sense of the possibilities inherent (and little explored) in modern-day pop.

Throughout Figure 8, the triad of unrequited love, lost opportunity and tellingly, selling out march lock-step through the string- and piano-infused pop tableau Smith employs to stunning effect. The strategy is familiar to fans of Smith’s previous work (most notably on the essential Either/Or). But on Figure 8, he expands his jaundiced vision beyond the superficial manifestations (witness Rose Parade on Either/Or) of failings both societal and personal; on the brilliant “Easy Way Out,” “Wouldn’t Mamma Be Proud?” and “Stupidity Tries,” Smith seems to deliver backhand lyrical slaps to the shit-eating grins of today’s vulgar dot.com generation. Note that this sort of cultural criticism never sounded better; however, the musical arrangements float the invective along on billowing, near-epiphanous layers of piano, strings and two-part vocal harmony. Anger can be beautiful.

Elsewhere, as on “Somebody I used to Know” and “Everything Reminds Me of Her,” Smith narrows his focus a bit to the pop staple of lost love. An easy target, sure, but given his amazing pop sensibility this is easy fodder for him. Smith suffuses the genre with a sense of authenticity and freshness that reveals most modern attempts at the subject as hollow and cliche ridden.

Let’s not mince words here, Elliot Smith is rapidly becoming a modern day pop legend, and Figure 8 is a near perfect follow up to Either/Or and XO. Highly recommended.