The Modern Classic: Figure 8 by Elliott Smith

Figure 8 – Original Release Date: April 18th 2000

This coming Saturday (August 6th) will mark what would have been the 47th birthday of one of this century’s most gifted songwriters. If you asked four of Elliott Smith’s fans to name their favourite album of his, you would probably get four different answers; such was the Omaha native’s ability for consistency. Smith put out five studio albums in his decade-long solo career, with one being released posthumously in 2004. The final of Smith’s records to be released in his lifetime, Figure 8, may not be his magnum opus (critics often point to 1997’s XO for that honour), but it does provide perhaps the most definitive account of Smith’s scope as an artist.

What we mean is that in his career, Elliott Smith proved himself as being an artist capable of producing both perfectly refined pop songs, as well as harrowingly intimate, bare-essentials guitar ballads. Both ends of this songwriting spectrum are on show on Figure 8, and both are executed to perfection. The album’s opener ‘Son of Sam’, is a fully realised power-pop song which has been mixed and balanced to a staggering extent. Interestingly enough, an early version of ‘Son of Sam’ can be found on 2016’s compilation album Heaven Adores You, which showcases the lo-fi beginnings of one of Smith’s most calculated hits. On the other end of the spectrum, the track ‘Somebody That I Used To Know’ is folksy and stripped back. Whilst it differs from ‘Son of Sam’ in this way, the track demonstrates Smith’s ability for profoundly affecting songwriting even while working in a starker musical landscape.

No matter what style he dabbles in, however, perhaps Smith’s greatest talent is his power to write music which is rarely emotionally prescriptive. His songs are often founded on heartache, disenchantment and lust, but he’s always subtle when dealing with these emotional passion points. We’re rarely made to feel purely sad, or purely uplifted. Smith cooks up an emotional melting pot from which we are able to take whatever we like. On ‘In The Lost And Found’, he balances cheerful piano work with lyrics which tell of loneliness and loss. We’re never forced into coming to conclusions; emotions feed into one another in this elegant and cohesive example of songwriting. The aforementioned ‘Son of Sam’ is similarly spritely. Listen to its lyrics though. It’s about a serial killer. This inconclusiveness is something that Smith appreciates, saying, when asked about the album’s cyclical title, “the object is not to stop or arrive anywhere, it’s just to make this thing as beautiful as they can.”

Smith’s music is timeless, but perhaps not in the conventional sense. He may not be a master of ingenuity or of challenging pre-existing conventions, but his music will remain pertinent for the examples of immaculately executed songwriting which it showcases. So Elliott Smith, happy birthday for Saturday. We miss you.

To purchase Figure 8 by Elliott Smith, click here.

Jasper Bruce

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