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"I'm not interested in making 'Elliott Smith' records over and over again," Elliott Smith said recently. "I'd be really happy if I could write a song as universal and accessible as 'I Second That Emotion.' " Admittedly, part of what Elliott Smith records entail is malaise, but it's unfair that he gets pigeonholedas miserableas Rolling Stoneputs it, he is "best known for penning wispy odes to the misunderstood." Which is too bad. On the one hand, profound melancholy is obvious in his lyrics; my best friend first appreciated him because, as she said, "I would just off myself if I were that depressed, instead of being able to write beautiful songs." On the other hand, ascribing what he describes in his songs as the "truth" about him is facile, even while doing so is both satisfying and fascinating. I was bummed out at first to read that he wrote either/or's romantic "Say Yes," a song that makes critics cream in their pants, while watching Xenabut this demystification is crucial to not infantilizing Elliott with preconceived notions, and to giving him credit as something more talented than a mere diarist of darker emotions.
Some people will, then, complain that Figure 8is too happy. My very favorite song on it, defiant in un-irony and sumptuously repetitive, is even called"Happiness." "What I used to be will pass away," Elliott asseverates, "and then you'll see that all I want now is happiness for you and me." I wouldn't say these songs are any more universal than those on earlier records (in fact, lyrically, they feel pretty esoteric), but they are more silvery, more artful, more than ever invoking the fact that Elliott's been playing piano since he was a petite decade-old and writing on guitar since he was a pre-pube. They feel less mired, and more simply engaged, in an intense emotional landscape. When I saw him play last he had a clean new haircut and blew copious kisses to the crowd.
"In the Lost and Found (Honky Bach)" is the album's best love song, what with its infectious country-ditty piano, jealousy-(on my part!)-inspiring plea "Don't go home Angelina/Stay with me, hanging around in the lost and found," and its calm announcement "I'm alone, that's okay, I don't mind/Most of the time/I don't feel afraid to die," which makes me shiver it sounds so serious. The fast-paced "Son of Sam" is edgy and catchy; the quieter "Easy Way Out" is a muted fuck-you, contemplative rather than turbulent. Figure 8firmly establishes Elliott Smith as a multidirectional composer and an even bigger fox than I'd originally thought: The transition from the critically acclaimed XOto Figure 8shows him breaking out of the niche that each previous album had cemented in place.
"How the world perceives me is not my problem," he told Eric Stoltz when the actor united them under the rubric of the "sensitive young artist" myth. And about the patchwork quilts and pillows I imagined he sewed and sold (a nod to his early folkiness?): As he told the L.A. Timesin 1998, "It's good if you can understand what your dream meant, but whether you do or not, it's having an effect on you. And on a certain level, you do understand what it's about. It's very important. People that can't fall asleep and dream go crazy."