** This is the second in a five part series of music reviews, counting down from the #5 to the #1 albums of the decade, 2000-2009. On January 2nd, 2010, the #1 album will be revealed, along with the complete Weekend Review picks for the Top Thirty Albums of the Decade. **
By Chris Moore:
RATING: 5/5 stars
Elliott Smith’s Figure 8 is undeniably one of the most hauntingly beautiful studio albums ever recorded.
This album — his fifth and final before his death — came at the peak of his career, blending his early acoustic fingerpicking styles with the orchestration that characterized his later work. When it was first released, some reviewers criticized it as lacking the “subtlety” of his previous work.
Figure 8 has all the subtle brushstrokes of his tremendous early work — Roman Candle, Either/Or — with a much better grasp of the big picture. Even XO, released two years previously as his major label debut, never quite attained the cohesion of Figure 8. The concept of the album title alone is compelling, possibly taken from a Schoolhouse Rock! song (which he recorded during the sessions). In a Boston Herald interview, Smith explained the concept by saying, “I liked the idea of a self-contained, endless pursuit of perfection. But I have a problem with perfection…” Conjuring the image of a skater, he continued, “So the object is not to stop or arrive anywhere; it’s just to make this thing as beautiful as they can.”
If this doesn’t encapsulate Smith’s worldview, then what does?
For better or worse, Figure 8 — not to mention all of his previous work — is often, perhaps unavoidably viewed through the lens of his death in 2003, generally considered to have been a suicide even though homicide could not be ruled out. Knowing the circumstances of his death, it is difficult not to bestow additional layers of meaning on tracks like “Everything Means Nothing to Me” and “L.A.”
Whatever your take on his life and death may be, the music on Figure 8 speaks for itself. Ranging from stripped down acoustic crooning to full-band electric romping, not to mention some honky tonk piano thrown in for good measure, the instrumental and vocal textures are well-layered, somehow achieving complexity without distracting from the songs themselves.
“Son of Sam” is, of course, the perfect album opener. As my girlfriend has pointed out, you really have to remind yourself of the topic of this track to avoid being taken in by how catchy and pretty it is. And how many songs about serial killers are simply this good?
Not many, I would hope.
Smith immediately takes it down a notch for track two, declaring his emotional distance in “Somebody That I Used To Know,” which is all acoustic and double-tracked vocals. Classic Elliott Smith.
No sooner does that song fade then “Junk Bond Trader” kicks up on piano, spewing out disdain in a manner that only Smith ever could. The next two tracks — “Everything Reminds Me Of Her” and “Everything Means Nothing to Me” — continue along the same theme, but in a more openly vulnerable voice. The latter sounds every bit as stripped down as the former until about a minute in, when the characteristically double-tracked vocals are joined by heavily reverbed drums, building up to a spine-tingling crescendo.
The album continues in this manner, spare instrumentation at times and all-out rock n’ roll at others. While Smith is an excellent piano player, guitar is clearly his instrument. His use of timing with guitar riffs, electric solos, clean and distorted sounds at various times, and even palm mutes is unsurpassed.
Somehow, Figure 8 achieves an eclectic, indie sound that is both very modern and very nostalgic, particularly of mid to late Beatles work. It seems no coincidence that Smith purchased authentic Beatles recording equipment throughout his career and even recorded several tracks for this release at the famed Abbey Road Studios in London.
It is difficult to imagine any other singers being more emotive, any other songwriters being so diverse in their styles and interests, or any other performers being so talented, much less all at the same time. For these reasons, Figure 8 is one of the absolute essential albums of the decade, 2000-2009. It may have barely cracked the upper half of the Billboard Hot 200, but anyone who rejects the radio and the Grammys as the best source for new music knows that this is an unreliable judge of musical character. Rolling Stone‘s panel of judges came a bit closer by voting this album as the #42 album of the decade, but this is drastically underselling it. After all, I love Love & Theft, I think Magic is rocking, and White Blood Cells is great, but how these albums can place higher than a true masterpiece like Figure 8, I’ll never know.
And don’t even get me started on U2, Coldplay, Radiohead, and Green Day…
Truly, if you have ever felt rejected, needed to distance yourself from a negative influence, tried to mentally process the pressures of society, or simply been human, Figure 8 is an essential album.