While the instances of stunted creativity abound when an artist decides to go solo, Elliott Smith proved to be a glorious exception to the rule. Coming from the Dandy Warhols neck of the woods (Portland, Oregan) where infectious hooks seem to habitually blossom on the trees it is no surprise that a cursory listen to Figure 8 reveals a smattering of sweet melodies that would have the makers of marmalade clambering to sign him up for their next ad campaign. Elliot Smith started out as twin singer/songwriting (with Neil Gust) in Heatmiser who went on to release 2 reasonable albums in ‘Dead Air’, ‘Cop and Speeder’ before Smith decided that going it alone was the way forward. ‘Figure 8’ was his fifth solo album. At this stage his star was in the ascendancy after the leg up received from having his ‘Miss Misery’ song included on the soundtrack to ‘Good Will Hunting’. It’s subsequent nomination for ‘Best Original Song’ at the Oscars (no, Celine Dion snatched it!) meant that the majors came running. Leaving his indie label Kill Rock to join Dreamworks he was given the financial clout to craft his most textured effort ‘XO’.
Like a twinkling star ‘Figure 8’ initially beams great shafts light in the form of ‘Son Of Sam’. The lilting piano strokes, smooth multi-layered vocals and periodic guitar frenzy is enough to have you gasping for more. ‘Son Of Sam’ is a delightful pick me up, yet Smith often descends into a strange state of melancholy. ‘Somebody That I Used To Know’ has him pining for a relationship that could’ve been while against the tide the acoustic guitar forays turn out to be as tuneful as the bees. Things get worse on ‘Everything Reminds Me Of Her’, a weepy that would probably be a strain for everyone except the recently broken up. The sequel ‘Everything Means Nothing To Me’ is equally taxing, saved only by the buoyant clamour at the end. But for all this introspection Smith cannily lifts the doom and gloom when required. ‘L.A.’ is a shimmering pop tune, jaunty and devoid of chorus. Who needs a chorus anyway when the whole thing resembles a maze of sweet vocals. ‘Stupidity Tries’ goes one step further, raising the ante over its ebullient 4 minutes. Arched like a cat before the kill the brooding vocal builds up to finally reveal the bloodthirsty chords that so illuminate the underlying melody. The song has single marked all over it and could easily have harnessed an audience had the will been there.
Despite the undemanding intensity of Figure 8, Smith doesn’t have it all his own way. About half way through you get a certain deja vu feel from the songs. As the pace slows and the mood becomes increasingly anal you can’t help but wonder how things could be have been made a lot more interesting had Smith decided to wig out a bit more like on the incomparable ‘Wouldn’t Mama Be Proud’. Designed to catch you unawares, the deep seethed percussion builds a pressure that finally erupts bringing forth volcanic riffs and mouth watering vocal lava. In the background the quietly chaotic barrage of sliding guitars is enough to burn your ears. When ‘Color Bars’ shuffles into view you are reminded of a particularly cute Beatles composition. Fingers skirting manically along shiny piano keys and Smith’s hushed melodic vocals would appeal to all except those with a stilted musical attitude. ‘Happiness’ has a dozy roving chord progression while the singers energised vocalising makes a nice departure. The song may outstay its welcome a little towards the end but there are a number of killer ideas just screaming for a listener.
While the pretty patterns woven during the quieter moments are sweet it’s only when Smith decides to throw caution to the wind that the album can truly be called delightful. ‘Can’t Make A Sound’ is one such occasion where he opts for the whiskey bottle rather than his usual glass of heated milk. For once the mood is threatening in that ‘you can’t see it but the ghoul is going to get you’ type of way. Like a dry riverbed as the storm clouds burst it bounds into life like you always knew it would. The intensity of the climax is enough to clear the golden cobwebs from your ears (spun from earlier tracks) and have you taking a hacksaw to the prison bars of your ordinary life. By culling one or two Smith by numbers (‘Pretty Mary K’ and ‘In The Lost And Found’ being prime examples), this album could have had a much stronger uppercut. While the gentle sparring sometimes delivers a devastating leftfield hook the gap between these intensities is just a little too wide and diminishes what could otherwise have been a spellbinding release. At 52 minutes it is probably just that bit too long. While it is consistently pleasant there just isn’t enough variety to ensure you’ll be transfixed throughout.
Despite this, ‘Figure 8’ is undoubtedly a pretty album that veers between the quaint, the beguiling and the slowcore. It should make its home wherever an emotional heart resides. There are tender melodies aplenty and Smith sure had a way with a guitar. Elliott’s tragic suicide 3 years after this album was released adds retrospective resonance to his lyrics and the inevitability that he’d become more famous after his death. KD
Elliott Smith – Wouldn’t Mama Be Proud