Learning From Elliott Smith, 20 Years After ‘Figure 8’< < Back to
Shortly after the release of his fifth studio album, Figure 8 — the last record he’d finish in his lifetime — Elliott Smith told a Boston Herald writer why he was so drawn to that titular image. “I liked the idea of a self-contained, endless pursuit of perfection,” he said. “But I have a problem with perfection. I don’t think perfection is very artful. But there’s something I liked about the image of a skater going in a twisted circle that doesn’t have any real endpoint. So the object is not to stop or arrive anywhere; it’s just to make this thing as beautiful as they can.”
That tension — between polish and texture, between pop and punk rock, between best-kept-secret and unlikely superstar — never quite found a steady equilibrium throughout Smith’s glorious, tumultuous career. The fame he began to attract, unwittingly, in the late ’90s (culminating with his tender and unforgettable 1998 Oscar performance of Good Will Hunting‘s “Miss Misery”) made that balance even more difficult to achieve. But Smith never crafted quite so immaculate an object of Beatlesque beauty as he did with his ornately melodic 2000 release Figure 8, which celebrates its 20th anniversary on April 18. Autumn de Wilde’s iconic cover photo has become the most enduring image of Smith, a be-hoodied everyman standing before a swirling, psychedelic mural. In the 2014 Smith documentary Heaven Adores You, she recalls summing up to him the idea behind the shot: “What if you are as everyone sees you, and you don’t realize that the world is exploding in color behind you?”
Smith moved to Los Angeles in 1999, after touring his breakout fourth album and first on the major label DreamWorks, XO. Though he’s most closely associated with his longtime home of Portland, Ore., Figure 8 is Smith’s LA record. He workshopped the songs during producer Jon Brion’s weekly Friday-night gigs at the West Hollywood club Largo, and during many shows at bars in his adopted neighborhood of Silver Lake. And, complicating the one-dimensional stereotype of Smith as tortured-guy-with-guitar, there’s a Brian Wilson-like sunniness to some of Figure 8‘s standouts, like “In the Lost and Found,” “Pretty Mary Kay” and “Happiness,” a stirring tune centered around the bittersweet mantra, “All I want for now is happiness for you and me.”
The 25-year-old Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers has listened to this record — and visited the Figure 8 mural — more times than she can count. Though she represents a generation that did not get into Smith’s music until after his death in October 2003, she’s dug deep into the archives to become, in her words, an Elliott Smith nerd. Her music — with its evocative lyrics, melodious murmurs and stark, surprising bursts of bleak humor — certainly echoes with his spectral influence. (She’ll release her second album, Punisher, on June 19.) “I have experienced the thing where people are like, ‘Oh, really, you like Elliott Smith? Shocker,’ ” she says with a laugh, phoning one day from her LA home. “And I’m like, ‘Yeah, but really. It’s not just a look. It’s my favorite music.’ ”
Like that trail of visible sound exploding behind him on the cover of Figure 8, Smith’s music has left behind a vivid legacy. His untimely death inspired some of his musician friends to write songs dedicated to him directly (Ben Folds’ 2005 ballad “Late,” along with “Ripchord” and “It Just Is” by the LA band Rilo Kiley, the opening act for some of Smith’s final shows.) But throughout the aughts, as the Internet brought once-underground veins of emo and indie rock bubbling into the mainstream, Smith’s finely crafted, exquisitely melancholy melodies seemed to become manifest in the music of a new generation of musicians. I can hear him in both the quietest and most bombastic recordings of Sufjan Stevens, the yelping, baroque arrangements of Arcade Fire, the soulful six-string confessionals of Julien Baker, and even, perhaps subliminally, in the artfully macabre whispers of Billie Eilish — who, this year, played her own version of the feted but somewhat uncomfortable outsider at the Oscars.
To Bridgers, though, Smith’s music is something more than an influence: It’s absolutely foundational. “It’s like The Beatles to me, and I mean that in every way,” she tells me. “If someone doesn’t like his music, I actually feel like I’m not going to agree with them about anything. It informs everything I like.”
That’s perhaps the greatest comparison Smith could have received. His adoration of the Fab Four bookended his life and career: He once claimed that the first record to ignite his desire to be a musician, when he was just 5 years old, was the ambitious and playfully eclectic White Album. (“It was pretty much my inspiration, that and AC/DC,” he said in an interview the month before Figure 8 was released.) Much later, in those troubled days of 2003, the final song he ever played live was a cover of the haunting White Album cut “Long, Long, Long.” That a young talent like Bridgers would call him her hero — and mention him in the same breath as his heroes — evokes that Autumn de Wilde image on the cover of his magnificent 2000 album. Maybe he never got to see that colorful continuum of music that snakes out behind him. But plenty of us can still hear it.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Lindsay Zoladz: I’m 33 now, so I was in high school when Elliott Smith died. I have a pretty vivid memory of it — I definitely wrote a really bummed LiveJournal entry that day. Since you got into his music after he was already gone, I’m curious about your earliest memories of listening to him, and what record you started with.
Phoebe Bridgers: I was in eighth grade. My friend Carla Azar showed me “Kiwi Mad Dog 20/20,” which is on Roman Candle. It’s a super weird one to start with because it’s instrumental. Later, another friend showed me “Waltz #2,” which became, and maybe still is, my favorite song of his — I think it just exemplifies his writing. Then I went super deep.
I went to Amoeba Music in LA and bought [the 2007 rarities compilation] New Moon, weirdly. Even though it was posthumously released, I just love that record. And there’s a bunch of s*** on there that nobody’s heard, still, because they were fans when he was still alive and just kind of didn’t check back in after he died. The first time I met Conor Oberst, I was playing this club in LA. I played” Whatever (Folk Song in C),” and then my song “Motion Sickness.” He was like, “Wow, I loved those last two songs.” I was like, “Well, yeah — I played one of mine and then the Elliott Smith song.” And he was like, “No you didn’t. That’s not an Elliott Smith song.” So yeah, a lot of people didn’t f*** with that record. But that was my first.
I think I’m one of those people you’re describing: That’s not a record that I’ve spent much time with, and maybe I was just too upset. It can be intense to go down certain rabbit holes with him. But Figure 8 is a record I don’t consider as dark — it has its moments, but by and large it feels more like an exploration of his pop sensibility. When did you first encounter that one, and how did you make sense of it within the rest of his catalog?
Honestly, because I had an iPod, I pretty much shuffled everything, so all those records kind of blended together at first. But then, I got really into vinyl. I got all his records on vinyl and that’s how I would listen for a long time; they each have a specific vibe and mood. The song “Son of Sam” I really loved right out the gates, because I’ve always been super fascinated with serial killers. I was like, “Oh my God — you can write about that?”
Looking back as an adult, [Figure 8] is such a clear graduation from making records in a basement. I’ve always heard one of his favorite bands was Rush, and I feel like you can kind of hear the Rush influences in his later music, even though you could in [Smith’s previous band] Heatmiser too. “Wouldn’t Mama Be Proud” feels a little more ’90s and heavy. And “Junk Bond Trader,” for sure.
Totally — maybe even more than XO, this is the record of his that I associate with inventive production choices just as much as I do great songwriting. From a production standpoint, are there elements on this record that have inspired your own music directly?
The double-tracking [on his vocals], always. I think it makes pretty much everybody sound better, especially those with kind of thinner voices, which I sometimes have when I sing the way that I like. A lot of his songs are like, “You don’t love me anymore — so you don’t know what love is.” But instead of singing it in a whiny accent, he’s sort of just laying out the facts in a monotone whisper. I’ve always gravitated towards that type of performance. It’s almost a little apathetic sounding, and I love that.
Production-wise, there’s that Tom Waits piano style I’ve always really loved. Crazy vocal harmonies. Guitar sounds — he just sounds like an orchestra when he plays, even by himself.
At the time this record came out in 2000, some people were kind of miffed that he’d signed to a major label and started making more elaborate arrangements — like it automatically meant he was selling out. We don’t talk about those things in quite the same way anymore, and when you listen to a record like Figure 8 now, that narrative kind of falls away. Was it ever on your radar with him?
Not really. I mean, I hear it’s an old folk tale, the idea that someone could sell out. It’s such a goofy stance. There’s so much less money in music [today] that sometimes getting a car commercial is the only way that you’re gonna make money. People don’t make nearly as much money as they did in the ’90s, so I think it was way more prevalent then. But also, who wants someone to just be lonely and be making records in their basement instead of collaborating with a band and touring and making sounds? I feel that way about it. It’s lonely to make records by yourself. I hear a joy in the more jammy songs on this album.
Have you ever been to the Figure 8 mural?
Oh yeah. It was actually really close to my house when I was first living by myself. I would go to it for his birthday, and then I would go across the street to Garage Pizza and have a slice of pizza. I met a couple weirdos like that. But yeah, I’ve been many times and was very, very upset when they cut a f****** hole into it. I get it why some Elliott fans hate it, because it’s just a place where he took a photo. But it’s like, where else? Are we supposed to stand outside of his f****** house? I like it as a thing. I like that people keep writing on it. I liked the year they turned it into all paper — it was a bunch of little Post-Its. That was really cool.
Personally, I associate his music with a specific time in my life, and when I go back to it, it brings me right back there. Do his records make you nostalgic for a certain time, or are they still in the present tense for you?
Some stuff throws me back to a certain time. At one point I took at least a two-year break from listening at all, just because I had listened so much. But because I keep coming back to it I’ll always know that stuff by heart and I never get sick of it. I feel the same way about Harry Potter books on tour: I’ll listen to Harry Potter books on tape because they comfort me. If I don’t wanna hear Figure 8 again, I’ll go deeper and listen to some old demos. I have, like, every seven-inch. I’m a huge nerd.
You’re deep in it. Do you have a favorite song off Figure 8?
It’s kind of hard for me to believe this album is 20 years old, because in a lot of ways it still sounds very fresh. Do you think it would find an audience if a record like this were released today?
It totally feels like something that could come out today and everybody would freak out. Genre-wise, it does feel very ’90s, early 2000s cusp. But I also think music would sound a lot different if it hadn’t come out. My music would definitely sound different. I think it was definitely a high point for him, and a victorious record that a lot of people loved. I hope he got to feel some of that.
Lindsay Zoladz is a critic, reporter and essayist living in Brooklyn.