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An impossible album

How can something made in such a dark place be so inspiring? How can someone so depressed find the time, the energy and the resolve, to complete this laborious, delicate, beautiful piece of art? And, rhetorically we might also ask: how can someone so talented die so young? 😱 What is being young?


I have been listening to this album for 20 years and the more I listen to it the farther away I will be from ever having answers to any of these questions. And this is daunting because the answers seem to be all there in the album, while at the same time, they're obviously not. And it's one of those Schrödinger's albums, one where the author is simultaneously both dead and alive, plus a few more twists to the mind, the heart, and the soul.

Figure 8 is the fifth studio album by American singer-songwriter Elliott Smith, and the final album he completed before his death. Wikipedia.

Picture of Figure 8's Album cover: Elliot Smith standing in front of a wall painted with red and black wavy lines
Elliott Smith - Figure 8 Wikipedia Visit site

Just like Jeff Buckley's Grace and Blind Melon's Soup, and countless others, from the first chords, first words, you are reminded how epic the whole experience of listening to the album is going to be. Like it's suddenly so obvious what it means to say these people will never really die.

And at the same time, from the first chord until the last note reverbs out, you can't avoid knowing how gone they are, and how so forever they are gone. And that this form, the interpretation, the mix, the whole form, is so final.

And yet, whatever is on that record, existed before, and it's timeless, and eternal. It might even occur, materialise, in these different instances, incarnations, album after album, one tragic loss at a time.

Solo perfection

Of course there is a but in here. For Grace and Soup, even if they revolve entirely and lyrically around the author's impending tragedy, there's also a brilliant band. And there's Andy Wallace. And that is an immense proportion of other human beings. Their skills, technique, and own passion, surrounding, supporting and completing the author, with instruments and voices, interpretation and arrangements, engineering and production.

I liked the idea of a self-contained, endless pursuit of perfection. 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 this endless 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.

Elliot Smith, in a May 11, 2000, article in Boston Herald

In Figure 8, legend says, Elliott Smith alone, was jumping from instrument to instrument, who really knows for how many takes, how many loops, how much time, seeking perfection in lyrics, arrangements. All for the sake of it, "of doing it", round and round like a figure 8. There must have been some joy.

Photo of Elliott Smith playing guitar and smiling on stage.
Henry Fonda Theater, L.A., January 2003 Photo by CC BY-SA 3.0 Visit site

And so do I, when I listen to this album back to back. Round and round, Standing up to sit back down, deeper and deeper into the intimate world within a world? of this genius that was King for a day but bored and depressed for all eternity.

"Now I'm a policeman directing traffic Keeping everything moving, everything static I'm the hitchhiker you'll recognize passing On your way to some everlasting"

A long way to go, getting further away. Can't make a sound. And then a wordless Bye.


Interviewer: Do you have any favorite tracks?

Elliott Smith: I like the ones that are kind of weird, more idiosyncratic,... this one called "Everything means nothing to me"?

I don't even know what to say here. Rick Sanchez asked it already: "Why did someone so talented die so young?". I am paraphrasing, but yeah.

Watch on youtube

Interviewer: You are going on tour with the full band?

Elliott Smith: Yes, for the rest of my life.

The autopsy evidence was inconclusive as to whether the wounds were self-inflicted or the result of homicide.

A Schrödinger tragedy in itself, Elliott both stabbed himself in the heart and was murdered by who knows who. This ultimate mystery of Elliott's life, adds up to the album, forever going like a figure 8, forever going all four ways, forever lapping onto itself.

Photo of graffitied wall with hand-written messages written
Elliott Smith Wall in Silver Lake Photo by MacLeod CC BY 2.0 Visit site

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