“I won't take your medicine / I don't need a remedy...”

When the mythologised life of Elliott Smith is invoked, the most frequent touchstones are his ‘97, ‘98 purple patch (‘Either/Or’ and ‘XO’) and the turbulent couple of years before his death in 2003.

The most lasting image has become the iconic Sunset Boulevard mural from the ‘Figure 8’ cover (now partially disfigured by a new business, but still a shrine nonetheless). Smith diehards might not accept his legacy in such reductive terms, but for the average fan this is the general impression (give or take a Wes Anderson-boosted ‘Needle In The Hay’).

‘Figure 8’, the album of the iconic mural, was the final album Smith completed in his lifetime, but received divisive and indifferent reviews from fans and critics alike upon its release in 2000. This short shrift has endured as his legacy continues to grow, the narrative instead hinging on the reductive narrative of a tortured genius, making heart-on-sleeve music; struggling with depression and drug dependency until his tragic, inevitable death. However, the music on ‘Figure 8’ is a vital stepping stone between these two points, and offers a wealth of insight into Smith's troubled thought process. 

As the album turns 20 this month, a reappraisal of its merits and flaws seems appropriate, given the resurgence of singer-songwriters at the moment (Big Thief, Lucy Dacus, Waxahatchee in the indie world) and in consideration of the album's timeless themes – addiction, repetition and struggle – that continue to permeate the cultural landscape.

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An immediate opening song had become a trademark of the Elliott Smith album, the previous three – ‘Needle In The Hay’, ‘Speed Trials’, ‘Sweet Adeline’ – are still among his most recognisable and well-loved tracks.

‘Son Of Sam’ is not quite that. It lacks confidence and purpose (not uncommon for a Smith song), but also seems an uncomfortable fit – not sure of its big-studio budget, but not looking for comfort in regression. It's the ideal opener for this album, which ultimately became the final artistic statement of Smith's career (‘From A Basement On The Hill’ was released in 2004, but it's, at best, an approximation of what the album would have been like if he had lived).

Following the breakout success of ‘Either/Or’, Smith signed with DreamWorks (now a part of Universal) and ‘XO’ was his major label debut. The improved engineering and studio polish was viewed with suspicion by lo-fi purists, though the busy arrangements couldn't distract from Smith's brilliant songwriting.

In light of this, Smith chose to take a more hands-on approach to ‘Figure 8’, playing the vast majority of the instruments and taking an active role in producing. There are still lingering moments of bombast – the jaunty poptimism of ‘L.A.’, the grating honky-tonk piano of ‘In The Lost And Found (Honky Bach)’, the searing guitar solo on ‘Son Of Sam’ – but the flourishes generally come with a little more nuance than the brash arrangements of ‘XO’.

‘Everything Means Nothing To Me’ earns its billowing psychedelia as the keys are slowly subsumed by clattering drums and austere strings, while the bar-room piano on ‘Color Bars’ is offset perfectly by soft shakers. Smith spent a lot of time behind the keys at Silverlake Lounge during the recording of ‘Figure 8’, and a certain fragmentary, off-the-cuff atmosphere infuses the album's most intimate moments.

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While Smith shows an awareness of the need to temper denser arrangements with moments of hushed reverence – the first four songs alternating between '70s FM melodies and folk-strumming simplicity, for example – his lyricism continues on the increasingly blunt trajectory established on ‘XO’.

Lines like “I couldn't think of a thing / that I hope tomorrow brings”, “I won't take your medicine / I don't need a remedy” or basically anything from ‘Easy Way Out’ are what fuelled contemporary accusations of cloying self-pity and self-righteousness, but the lack of subtlety is better viewed as an artistic compulsion, rather than an aesthetic cop-out. Also, attitudes toward mental health in 2020 are much different to what they were, which may have led to a less sympathetic view of Smith at the time.

His troubles with addiction and depression were well-known by the time of ‘Figure 8’, and the album features some of his most poetic renderings of the disposition. “The enemy is within/don't confuse me with him” he muses on ‘Stupidity Tries’. “Checking in to a small reality/boy, that's a drug you take too regularly,” he concedes on ‘Junk Bond’.

Elsewhere, ‘Color Bars’ and ‘L.A.’ seem to allude to Smith's feelings of displacement and abandonment (a prevalent theme in his work, e.g. ‘Waltz #2’); “I can't go home/ It's not on my way” he laments on ‘L.A.’

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The excessively repeated refrain of ‘Happiness’: “What I used to be will pass away and then you'll see / That all I want now is happiness for you and me” seems like overkill, until the soft breaks of Smith's voice indicate that the words are more like a mantra he's trying to will into existence, rather than something he actually expects to happen.

It casts a melancholic shadow upon what is an ostensibly hopeful statement, similar to the way his upper register cracks at just the right moment on ‘Somebody That I Used To Know’: “it's not your heart/it's mine/that's scarred.”

These glimpses of intimacy are what inspire such fervent adoration of Smith, but their sparse appearance across ‘Figure 8’ can be seen as growing maturity as a songwriter, or a desire to hide more of himself, depending on your view.

The notion of dialectics is something that crops up throughout Smith's work, with the title of ‘Either/Or’ being the most striking example. It's a particularly crippling view of existence for anyone, but especially someone with depressive tendencies like Smith. He saw the concept of Figure 8, with its implicit movement, as the “self-contained, endless pursuit of perfection...the object is not to stop or arrive anywhere.”

In attempting to break free of dialectical constraints, Smith sought to find a third way, exemplified in a line from ‘Color Bars’: “everyone wants me to ride into the sun/but I ain't gonna go down/laying low, high on the sun.” But the forward progression of this Figure 8 is an illusion, it just ends with the same repetitive cycle.

Conscious or not, this is what ultimately holds this album back from true brilliance: an inability to carve out a new path; it's half way between hushed nostalgia and grandiloquence, solemn hues and beaming colours, safe comfort and experimentation.

The old dialectics never left, but it doesn't negate the power of ‘Figure 8’ as a fascinating statement from an artist at a vital, vulnerable crux in his life.

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Words: Lewis Wade

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