Y'know, I always thought Elliott Smith was just a shy, talented singer-songwriter-depressive who needed to wash his hair. But on the first song on Figure 8, he compares himself to the serial killer Son of Sam. Fortunately, this disturbing revelation is set against the backdrop of a first rate guitar- and piano-driven pop song with pretty, multi-tracked harmony vocals and a rocking mid-section. But also worth checking out is the acoustic version of the song, which is included on the recent "Happiness" single. It's a more intimate and stark affair with just a quiet, vulnerable vocal and Smith's accomplished but not showy acoustic guitar picking.
The differences in the two versions illustrate the two sides of Smith. On Figure 8, Smith and longtime producers Tom Rothrock and Rob Schnapf effectively combine the best attributes of both styles. Three-minute pop epics with string section crescendos alternate with simple ballads and song fragments. Remarkably, it all works together well. Smith delivers lullaby-like melodies with reflective, bittersweet, quirkily phrased lyrics that sound like shards of overheard intense private conversations or internal dialogues.
"Son of Sam" is followed by the pretty acoustic jangler "Somebody That I Used to Know," in which Smith gives a hard-hearted kiss-off to a departed lover. "Everything Means Nothing To Me" is a baroque, Beatlesque piano ballad on which Smith repeats the title mantra-like as echo-laden drums and strings come up in the mix.
Smith recently moved to Los Angeles, and he pays tribute to his new home on the rocker "LA," which has some George Harrison-like guitar and a cool clickety-clack riff. "Easy Way Out" is another acoustic ballad with a chorus that will stick in your head for days and caustic lyrics directed at another paramour who has moved on. "I heard you found another audience to bore. A creative thinker who imagined you were more."
"Wouldn't Mama Be Proud" has one of Smith's best vocal efforts, showing his remarkable range on multi-tracked soaring harmonies. "Can't Make a Sound" cranks up the volume with a mid-song freakout. And Smith closes the record with "Bye," a couple of minutes of haunting, far away piano.
Figure 8 is an impressive and absorbing record; the best of Smith's career, and one of the year's best so far. Its sixteen songs have both an elusive depth and a direct simplicity that will surely be revealing new things for many listens to come.