Sunday, May 16, 2010

Album Review: Elliott Smith - Figure 8

Elliott Smith: Figure 8
[Dreamworks 2000]


My glorious journey through the world of Elliott Smith began here, when a friend of mine sent me "Junk Bond Trader." Slowly I'd hear more and more, out of album order, but each song was just as infectious and mesmerizing as the last. His music has the melodies and instrumentation reminiscent of The Beatles with lyrics and attitude that cuts through you with incredible emotional veracity. Among my favorites of his albums is Figure 8, where both aspects of his music are in strong balance.

We begin with "Son of Sam," which is basically Smith's most textbook pop rock song in his catalog. It is one of his best known for those outside the Smith fanbase, and although it lacks the quite, personal sentiments of much of his earlier work that Smith fans seem to adore most, it is a beautiful song with a melody you'll find hard to stop singing. Next in line is the more familiar multi-layered vocals and acoustic guitar with "Somebody That I Used to Know," which, as the title cleverly implies, is about defiantly moving past someone close to you that has changed for the worse so that you essentially don't know them anymore. Another beautiful tune, I kept replaying it the after I first heard it because the guitar part starting at 1:08 struck me as so musically appealing and satisfying. Maybe it's just me, but when I heard that I just had to lean back and think "music is amazing."

"Junk Bond Trader" follows as an intense rocker the conjures up an image of a decrepit life full of people cashing in on the misfortune of others and "trying to sell a sucker a style." The song's lyrics and rich instrumentation are so engrossing they truly have to be heard to be understood. It is one of the best songs on the album.

What follows returns us again to Smith's quieter, expert stylings on the acoustic guitar in "Everything Reminds Me of Her." It is an incredibly sad song about losing a loved one in one way or another. Whether Smith wrote this about a real person or if he was referencing heroine, as is often speculated in many of his songs due to his battles with it, is unclear, but it is certainly one of many examples of Smith revealing his heavy emotional burdens quite openly. What follows is a piano-centric "Everything Means Nothing To Me," which brings home again, perhaps in too overwrought a fashion, his personal demons.

The album picks up the pace afterwards, with the delightful and incredibly catchy pop song "L.A" that is another tune that presses you to sing along. The delightfulness continues with "In the Lost and Found (Honky Bach)," in which Smith, the masterful multi-instrumentalist he was, sports a wonderful and upbeat piano melody.

"Stupidity Tries" is one of my favorites from this album, as it builds to an exhilarating and epic climax full of violins, drums, and a guitar-driven rhythm that I want to replay, and relive, again and again. Comparatively, "Easy Way Out" is quieter and while the melody works, it is a low point on the album.

What comes next is a song that, above any other song on the album, I wonder why it didn't become a breakthrough mainstream hit for Smith, as it seems to fit alongside anything you'd hear in a MTV rock music video or on maybe even pop radio. "Wouldn't Mama Be Proud" has Smith almost going out of his way to compose what is probably the most radio-friendly song on the album that is complete with warm, clear vocals and a soaring, extremely catchy chorus. Accordingly, it does not fit as well alongside the more emotional, acoustic songs that dominates much of the rest of his catalog and that has earned him his strong indie following. Nevertheless, "Wouldn't Mama Be Proud" is one of the best and most enjoyable songs on the album.

From this peak of activity, the action returns to an upbeat, dreamy landscape provided by piano and violin-backing with the not-spectacular but very respectable "Color Bars." Then comes another "climax" builder "Happiness," which doesn't top "Stupidity Tries" but is a terrific song nonetheless. The "falling action" of the song is Smith repeatedly singing "What I used to be will pass away and then you'll see / That all I want now is happiness for you and me." This portion is one of the most beautiful parts of the album, as well as Elliott Smith's entire body of work.

The influence of The Beatles on Smith's work is ever present on Figure 8, perhaps most so on the mysterious next track "Pretty Mary K." What follows is a song that is a testament to the new treasures you discover even after you've heard an album a dozen times. I don't know why, but it took me forever to warm up to "I Better Be Quiet Now" and now I believe it is the best acoustically-oriented song on the album. What eventually won me over were the delicate chorus and the beautiful lyrics that focus on the themes of loneliness and loss. He laments: "Had a dream as an army man with an order / Just to march in my place / But a dead enemy / Screams in my face." Now that I appreciate it, it is a gem. Likewise, "Can't Make a Sound" begins at a slow pace that swells with multi-layered vocals, drums, and subtle violins in the background that gorgeously caps off the standard songs of the album. What I mean by that is that the nearly two minute closer is a dreamy yet subdued instrumental "Bye," which is a beautiful concluding statement on the album; it seems to simultaneously convey the beauty of his musical expressions as well as the personal demons and the melancholy prism through which Smith sees himself and the world around him.

Figure 8 delivers a powerful collection of music that is never tired or repetitive but always engrossing and incredibly touching. While the beautiful instrumental compositions composed and performed by Smith are most evidently magnificent, the lyrical genius behind each song is often hidden and only understood through multiple listens. But new listeners should surely investigate and follow the lyrics of Smith, for it is his songwriting capabilities that he is probably most famous and renowned in the indie rock community. On this album in particular, the combinations of Smith's full band and acoustic styles are overlapped with his always powerful lyrical masterworks to create classic album that is thoroughly engaging and enjoyable from start to finish.

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