I seem to do an Elliott Smith post at least once a year. Here’s another one. Chris O’Leary, author of the excellent 64 Quartets and Pushing Ahead of the Dame blogs (the latter published in book form as Rebel, Rebel and Ashes to Ashes), happened to tweet yesterday that Figure 8 has its 20th anniversary this month. I’ve hardly blogged about music in the last few weeks, with everything else going on, and writing about Figure 8 seemed like a good way to ease myself back in. I’m on leave for two months now (I’ve been furloughed), so expect an uptick in activity here.
DreamWorks Pictures was founded in 1994 by former Asylum/Geffen/DGC head honcho David Geffen, former Disney chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg and Steven Spielberg. In 1996, they launched DreamWorks Records as a subsidiary, signing up legendary Warner Bros Records veterans Lenny Waronker and Mo Ostin to run the label. With the money that the founders had and the industry clout and smarts of Waronker and Ostin (guys that were renowned for being probably the most humane, artist-friendly and musically astute execs in the business), DreamWorks could have been the greatest record label ever, bar none.
It didn’t happen that way. OK, so timing was against them; fast forward less than 10 years and the idea that any label in the reduced file-sharing era could be what Asylum or Warners had been 35 years before would seem laughable. But the decisions made within the label ensured it couldn’t have happened anyway.
Perhaps Waronker and Ostin ceded too much control to their A&R team. Perhaps they were just getting old and had lost their touch. Whatever it was, the DreamWorks roster was weird in the extreme, with no defining aesthetic. The label made an immediate splash by handling the North American release of Older, George Michael’s first record after his Sony lawsuit, and other smart early signings included the Eels and Rufus Wainwright. But the label also signed dreck like is-this-meant-to-be-funny industrial act Powerman 5000, Britpop ambulance chasers Subcircus and southern hip hop third-stringers PA.
Ostin and Waronker achieved god-level status in the 1970s by working with self-directed singer-songwriters – keen-eyed students of musical history who could write and execute their own music with minimal production help. They’d have been advised to stick to that rather than signing people like Papa Roach.
In early 1998, though, they made another savvy signing. Elliott Smith was fresh off the success of the Oscar-nominated Miss Misery, had some early recordings for his next record already in the can and was, as ever, exploding with new songs. He must have seemed a can’t-miss. XO, his first DreamWorks record, did very well for them, and saw Smith taking advantage of the expanded sonic possibilities afforded to him by greatly expanded budgets. The album made use of horn and string players, plus a session drummer or two (one being Joey Waronker, son of Lenny), and was recorded at some impressive facilities: Ocean Way, Sunset Sound and the Sound Factory. But Smith didn’t yet go whole hog, keeping the recordings of Baby Britain and Amity he’d begun at his friend Larry Crane’s Jackpot! Studios in Portland, which Smith himself had helped to build (according to Crane, Smith was extremely accomplished at mudding drywall).
For the follow-up, recorded largely in 1999, Smith abandoned restraint. He wanted a big sound – the most widesscreen Hollywood sound he’d ever captured – and he had the wherewithal to do it now. Working once again with Tom Rothrock and Rob Schnapf (who was married to Smith’s manager, Margaret Mittleman), Smith graduated to even more storied studios – not just Sunset Sound, but Capitol Studios in the famed Capitol Records Building and Abbey Road. According to William Todd Schulz in Torment Saint, his biography of Smith, Elliott had been musing aloud about how he’d like to work at Abbey Road someday, and someone at DreamWorks took him at his word and started booking the session right away. Such things do not happen to musicians who stay signed to Kill Rock Stars.
From the off, Figure 8 is a more widescreen affair than even XO‘s most expansive moments. Opener Son of Sam, a deceptively perky 4-minute pop song about being so disconnected from everyone that you feel your closest kin is a serial killer, heralds a new sound for Smith immediately: brighter, sharper and louder (not in terms of distortion, just in terms of the compressed mix and Don Tyler’s heavily limited, brute-force mastering job) than ever before.
Listening to it, one can’t help but marvel at Smith’s craftsmanship. It’s full of gorgeous chord changes, spot-on harmonies and killer arrangement touches like the dual guitar-and-piano solo, which are all the more impressive given that he played and sang literally everything on the recording himself. But it’s not a warm sound, or a comforting sound. It’s not a sound for late-night headphones listening. It’s big and grand, but a little cold. It keeps you at a distance. There is, you realise after several listens, not really a chorus.
Beginning with Son of Sam, the first four songs see-saw back and forth between what we might think of as the Figure 8 sound – full-bodied, full-band arrangements with sparklingly trebly electric guitars – and Smith’s familiar acoustic picking. Problem is, Son of Sam apart, the songs are not the record’s strongest. In fact, if I could play god* with this record, I’d cut Somebody I Used to Know and Junk Bond Trader entirely, and think long and hard about Everything Reminds Me of Her, too. According to Schnapf, he and Smith disagreed over the optimum ratio of solo-acoustic to full-band songs, with Schnapf pushing for more of the acoustic material. DreamWorks, meanwhile, wanted the record to be shorter, while Schnapf believed the only way the right balance of soft and loud could be achieved without leaving out strong material was for the record to be longer. The finished tracklisting suggests a degree of overthinking, not to say muddled thinking, and feels like a compromise.
For me, the album picks up again with the stunning Everything Means Nothing to Me, a piano ballad somewhat akin to XO‘s Waltz #1, recorded at Abbey Road and with Quasi’s Sam Coomes on bass as part of an arrangement featuring Mellotron strings and a drum track with a prominent slapback echo, the latter both played by Smith. It’s a starkly beautiful recording, one of the best things Smith ever did, and one that he would cite as a favourite afterwards.
LA is harmony-drenched rock, notable for its galumphing rhythm and closing Bangle-esque harmonies pinched from Walk Like an Egyptian. As a commentary on the city Smith had moved to from New York at Mittleman’s suggestion, it has a hallucinatory, everything-happening-at-once quality perhaps derived from Penny Lane, but like many Figure 8 songs, its impressionistic lyrics full of people (especially soldiers) behaving inexplicably, suggest something going deeply wrong with Smith (“Living in the day, but last night I was about to throw it all away”).**
At the Lost and Found is a song I really go back and forward on. Sometimes its tinklingly repetitive piano figure sounds endearingly naive, at other times infuriatingly repetitive. Today, it’s the latter. Halfway through the second verse, Smith seems to recognise the problem and drops the riff to a lower octave. I wonder if the song would work better for me if it had all been played there. The middle eight is certainly interesting harmonically, so the song’s far from a dead loss, but it’s not one I return to often.
Stupidity Tries is one of the album’s highlights – a career highlight, even – and a sort-of embodiment of the Figure 8 aesthetic. Recorded at Abbey Road with Joey Waronker sitting in on drums and Sam Coomes on bass, it has a notably different energy to the other songs; it may even have had a live basic track. Smith’s chord sequence, full of surprising semi-tonal changes*** and cool modulations****, is one of the best he ever cooked up, and the band work up a real head of steam in the instrumental outro, which also benefits from Suzie Katayama’s orchestration – probably the biggest string sound ever captured on an Elliott Smith record.
Perhaps it’s the juxtaposition of Easy Way Out next to Stupidity Tries that makes the former sound gauche and half-written, but despite its impressive finger-picking, the song has never done anything for me, and I find it’s cynical finger-pointing unpleasant to the point where I reach for the skip button.
I’ve never got the sense that Wouldn’t Mama Be Proud is particularly esteemed by his fans, but I love it. Pete Thomas (of Elvis Costello’s band, the Attractions) is brick-wall solid on drums, the chorus is a West Coast AM radio hook to die for and Smith’s vocal performance is one of his best – the verses and middle eight see him largely in the middle of his chest range, where his voice always sounded strongest, despite it being the register he used the least on his records (including Heatmiser’s).
Color Bars and Happiness are similarly strong, the former being my favourite among the record’s softer songs. Like Can’t Make a Sound later, Happiness is a great song marred a little by its coda – not so much the music but the way Smith’s high-pitched tremolo-picked guitar is weaponised by the brutal mastering job. (On the other hand, if you have a build-up of wax in your ears, listening to those songs on repeat would be a cheap way to scrape them clean.)
I’ve written before about Pretty Mary K, so forgive me for repeating myself, but it still pretty much sums up my thinking on it:
This song is one that’s gone up in my estimation a lot recently. When the album came out, it wasn’t a favourite, really, and probably wouldn’t have been in my top 10 songs off the album. Now it’s right up there.
Why? Well, first there’s the chord sequence, full of surprises and modulations, which in turn leads to a satisfyingly complex melody. Any fool can string random chords together. The key is how you make them live together so that they sound natural rather than arbitrary, whether through voice leading within the chords or through a melody that justifies the choice by including the strong notes of the chord, rather than floating unobtrusively on top. In Pretty Mary K, Smith does a little of both.
There’s also the great one-man-band performance. His drumming has a pleasingly jazzy looseness, his guitar playing – the intro riff on acoustic, the electric arpeggios – is clean, precise and inventive, and his block harmonies are exemplary. Figure 8 includes excellent performances by hired drummers, but Smith’s own playing on Pretty Mary K is just perfect for the song, and no matter how accomplished, a session player probably wouldn’t have equalled the feel.
Which leaves the trio of songs that close the record. I Better Be Quiet Now is one of Smith’s most affecting admissions of hopelessness (“I got a long way to go, getting further away”), with a great arrangement of doubled acoustic guitar and counterpoint electric lead that comes in two thirds of the way through. Unlike some of the other predominantly acoustic songs on the record, it holds its own with the likes of Happiness, Son of Sam and Stupidity Tries.
Can’t Make a Sound, ear-scraping coda apart, is breathtaking: one more of Smith’s inventive chord sequences, patiently forceful Pete Thomas on drums and another huge orchestration from Suzie Katayama.
The record ends on the echoey piano instrumental Bye, which sounds like a cue from a Jon Brion movie score. It used to feel out of place, but it’s grown on me down the years, and I’d keep it now. The little instrumentals dotted throughout Figure 8 (unlike Bye, they’re not usually given their own track) are part of the album’s character, and I wouldn’t want to lose them.
Figure 8 is easily the least cohesive musical statement Smith made as a solo artist, and may be even less coherent than Heatmiser’s spectacularly patchy second album, Cop and Speeder. Its best songs are transcendently good, full of invention and animated by Smith’s evident delight at his new-found resources. Yet, it’s also marred, particularly in its first half, by its inability to settle on a style or mood, as well as some songs that are a wide notch or two below Smith’s best work. I remain extremely fond of it, and listen to its best tracks frequently. If you’re looking to sell someone on Elliott Smith with a playlist, there’s four or five tunes here that are essential, and several others that are nearly as good. But if you’ve never heard him before, I’d point you to Either/Or if your taste runs to the minimalist or lo-fi, or XO, if you want a more Beatle-eque experience.
Elliott Smith being directed by his friend Autumn de Wilde during the making of the Son of Sam video. If you’ve not seen it, I greatly enjoyed de Wilde’s recent feature debut, an adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma starring Anja Taylor-Joy, Bill Nighy and Johnny Flynn.
*Oh what the hell. I’ll play god. Here’s my, substantially shorter and more electric, version of Figure 8. Call it Figure 8.1, I guess. Figure 8, Smith’s cover of the Schoolhouse Rock tune’s spooky first section (sung by Blossom Dearie), would mark end of side one, and be rescued from its B-side obscurity. It was intended to be part of the album until the very last minute, when it was bumped for Easy Way Out – a poor decision.
- Son of Sam
- Everything Reminds Me of Her
- Everything Means Nothing to Me
- Stupidity Tries
- Figure 8
- Wouldn’t Mama Be Proud
- Color Bars
- Happiness/The Gondola Man
- Pretty Mary K
- I Better Be Quiet Now
- Can’t Make a Sound
**Smith would start smoking heroin and crack while living in LA. The exact timeline is unclear, but it seems reasonable to assume Smith was spiralling downwards at this time, even if he was not yet an addict, or even using regularly.
***That arpeggiated four-chord run that takes us out of the verse into the chorus – F#minor, E, B, D# – is brilliant.
****Although the song is essentially in E, and the chorus begins on C#minor, much of it’s in C, with a prominent G major, and B7 as a pivot to take us back into E.
If a 10-minute distraction would help right now, here’s a couple of new songs I released recently. Email me through the contact form on the About page if you’d like a Bandcamp download code.