Elliott Smith Albums From Worst To Best

Elliott Smith Albums From Worst To Best

Elliott Smith at the 70th Academy Awards ceremony: When it’s mentioned, it’s as one of those cautionary anecdotes, an example of the fundamental incompatibility of the underground with commercial artistry. But it’s all there, or if it isn’t, we can pretend it is. Trisha Yearwood has finished her performance, and the onstage columns drift apart like glaciers. The camera looks away to the assembled guests. Vangelis-like synthbeds cue Smith, hustling to hit his mark at center stage. (The original plan called for him to perform sitting on the stairs leading to the stage.) His hand accidentally brushes the strings. The synths recede with the curtains, and he begins. He begins softly — too softly, so the vocals are brought up midway through the first line. That white suit is oversized, or perhaps it was just ill-fitting, and perhaps no suit would have been fitting — not here, certainly, but nowhere else. either. As usual, his hair is long and unwashed, but his ears still poke through. He told Under The Radar that, lest he end up looking at Jack Nicholson, he decided to fix his gaze on the balcony, but every close-up catches him looking at the footlights, or his microphone. Wider shots see him kicking his right foot out: a timekeeping tic, the Liverpool leg. None of it mattered. He had a song, a song nothing could fuck with, a 3/4 pop song with a melody that rose and fell like lungs. The orchestra offered respectful yet redundant accompaniment — musical director Bill Conti, of “Gonna Fly Now” fame, would win an Emmy for his work tonight — and Smith is joined in the second verse by a pan whistle, a reference to Danny Elfman’s theme for Good Will Hunting theme, from which “Miss Misery” was nominated. Regardless, it likely reminded the audience of Céline Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On,” the love theme from another madman’s folly.

Restricted to two verses and the second bridge, he bows in a Beatlesque fashion and exits stage right to warm applause. (Warm but not hot — people forget that Aaliyah also performed that night, the youngest singer ever at the Oscars; she performed an anodyne song from Disney’s Anastasia, but she owned the stage, which was recognized by perhaps the ideal audience for such a feat.) Afterward, Smith walked back to center stage with Trisha Yearwood; Céline Dion (who told him, shortly before his performance, that his jitters were rocket fuel; also, that she loved his song) met them there and they all clasped hands and bowed. Madonna presented the Best Song nominees; Elliott was treated to the loudest applause, and that’s almost surely because of the figure he cut, an underground misfit dropped down to display a heart he’d painstakingly carved.

He was onstage for less than three minutes, and all of it — the showing, the contrast — was such a wonderful moment. Art and commerce, big gestures and small gestures and studied gestures, unease and acceptance. Smith’s Oscar nomination fished his label out of the debtors’ pool. Though his big-label debut was well underway when “Miss Misery” pricked Gus Van Sant’s ears, the performance was a demarcation between his old home (Portland) and his new (Los Angeles), between a cult and a fanbase, between his roots and the sky. He was Mychel Thompson, shedding his Trail Blazers jersey to grab a couple rings with the Lakers. He was Harry Nilsson, too talented and restless to avoid an audience forever. He was George Harrison and Emmit Rhodes and Hank Williams Jr. and Judee Sill. He was a drug addict and a depressive, a man who seemingly believed in little more than his musical abilities, who would follow them like a red balloon through every alley and tunnel until they led him to a song that nothing could fuck with.

Born 16 months after Céline Dion, Steven Paul Smith was a child of divorce, a typically mobile American who called Nebraska, Texas, Massachusetts, Oregon and California home in his 34 years. His musical sparks weren’t the Dicks or Black Flag: they were ’80s country and classic rock and his grandmother’s glee club. He joined bands, bursting with arrangements and ideas, kicking out the jams with abandon. The last such band was Heatmiser, a Portland concern though it was co-founded with Hampshire College classmate Neil Gust. The shows could be raucous, and the band’s tendency toward hooks tested the patience of their city’s proudly parochial scene. Never good at goodbyes, Smith recorded two solo albums while Heatmiser slowly whiffed on the brass ring.

Many artists make their big statements early, then spend their careers offering clarification. From one album to the next, Smith just got louder. His first record had four untitled songs; the last one released while he was living featured two medleys and a parenthetical title. And yet, while his sound was always impeccable, it was never polished. He didn’t improve appreciably as a vocalist. The suit just learned to fit him. With every record, he chased some idea of perfection, rarely straying past his (admittedly scant) limits as a musician, continually digging out some new variation on isolation or dependence or bemusement. Though, like Cobain, he might’ve identified with headstrong John Lennon, his facility with instruments and love of melodic filigrees puts him, as a composer, firmly in Paul McCartney’s lineage. Like the Beatles, he rapidly outgrew his provincial surroundings. Unlike the Beatles, his peers tended to view his move with suspicion. The typical indie scene is a petri dish of varying ambitions, with the fullest praise reserved for the folks living their art, whatever that means. The immediacy and intimacy of Smith’s first records created an aura that many found difficult to reconcile with his increasingly realized ambitions.

Still, in a solo career that packed five albums into fewer than six years, he managed the startling feat of twinning consistency with evolution. Shifting modes, pulling listeners away from all manner of tonal centers, deploying dozens of arresting figures that lesser lights would’ve lashed a whole song around: Smith was an untutored wizard. With the exception of the fractured, posthumous From A Basement On The Hill, he cast his spells within compact runtimes. While living, he released just one song over five minutes. So disposed toward excess in his personal life, on record he was a paragon of concision, the king of killing with quick cuts. Lyrically, he moved from the expected confessional mode (though few could match his ability to mine the personal without striking cheese) to obtuse imagery that still refracted lived experience. His songs were rarely muscular; Smith tended toward the interior throughout his career, building striking structures to house the slights and wounds and fears he held so close. The care that he lavished on form and timbre was nearly equaled with that given to metaphor, directness and rhyme.

To the credit of his audience, Smith’s suicide did not spawn a cult of demon worship. Perhaps it was his fundamental fragility — a condition that attracted and cast out friends in equal measure — that’s fended off our typical and perverse awe of illness channeled through artistry. Perhaps his death just seemed inevitable. It’d be a mistake to say that music was his solace. He was his own worst critic, striving for perfection while second-guessing any steps made in that direction. Rather, music was something that he was really fucking good at. He had a head full of figures and bridges, devastating lines and comforting assurances. His body of work stands with that of any songwriter from of his era, even if a whole, living Elliott Smith would be a gift worth erasing the whole collection. He was a man of furious talent, and he wrung as much out of it as his body allowed. What follows is an examination of Smith’s six studio sets, as well as the mandatory collection New Moon. So much was, and is, that what could have been barely deserves a thought.

07

From A Basement On The Hill (2004)

"The thing I liked about punk in the first place is still alive in my head... you have to keep changing and not get stuck in a little box, and not become, like, a connoisseur of yourself."

The years after Figure 8 were spent severing some relationships and starting others. He reached out to Jon Brion (who had made contributions to the last couple records), but the sessions were aborted amidst Smith's deepening drug use. He picked up with David McConnell, a partnership that lasted for months and then just petered out. His albums were typically tracked across a few locations, but this was a different beast entirely -- eleven people are listed as having a hand in recording. The scattered nature of Basement is all too evident. Like Sleater-Kinney's The Woods, released the next year, it's an overloaded album, oppressively loud in places. But where S-K wanted to lacerate, Smith seems to have intended just to be human: detuned guitars and sloppy drumming and buried vocals were the order of the day. Decisions that he once would've excised -- or not made in the first place -- were left in: a hokey backwards-guitar figure at the end of "Pretty (Ugly Before)", a full minute of Abbey Road-style warmups leading into "Shooting Star", the insertion of Bible-belt ramblings and nature noises, a 30-second McConnell sound vignette that was bizarrely inserted into the middle of the record. Details that might've been mawkish had he not killed himself now read as poignant or (even worse) predictive. "King's Crossing" is the best example, with its infamous call-and-response. "Give me one good reason not to do it," he sings, and his girlfriend responds "Because I love you". The exchange was borrowed from live performances of the song, and her answer is mixed incredibly low, as if its handlers were embarrassed by its implications. For every darkly funny moment ("I'm going on a date with a rich white lady/ Ain't life great"?) there are a half-dozen glancing jabs at the industry and addiction. So stirring in the minute-long intro, his underwater piano surrenders to an overstuffed mix.

And yet, while he strained not to be a connoisseur, his tendencies followed. Possibly the meanest thing he ever recorded, "A Distorted Reality Is Now a Necessity to Be Free" references his mom and assigns a date to an overdose before introducing Barrett to Buddy on that self-pitying chorus: "Shine on me, baby/ 'Cause it's raining in my heart". Backed by his sexist guitar figures, shielded by a Leslie cabinet, he falls flat on the line "God knows why my country doesn't give a fuck." "Memory Lane" transmutes the blackbird of "Distorted" into McCartney's, his nylon-like guitar pitched as uncomfortably high as his antsy vocals. "Let's Get Lost" suffers from a similar issue of tempo: Smith's vocals are unclear, his sense of tension is nowhere to be seen. There is a gem, though: "Don't Go Down" starts with Flaming Lips-style warmup, then a wry couplet ("I met a girl/ Snowball in hell"). The pace is woozy, the plea gripping. His squalling guitar bed points to the earth, but he sings like a man scaling a treacherous peak.

Clearly, Smith had been suffering for as long as anyone could remember. Interviews with friends and collaborators depict a man with a casual relationship to death, a guy who didn't cry for help so much as haul ass away from it. Though he had reportedly dismissed nearly all of his addictions in the last year of his life, a fundamental presence remained. When a musician commits suicide, albums become records, and lines become testimony. Explanations are owed; points of return must be identified. Discography informs biography, but even for the best cases, biography is a low-res rendering of a protected picture. Of course Smith's recorded history intersects with his artistic output, but that could be said of practically anyone. The search for answers implies that the questions are fully understood. Even if Elliott Smith were alive and peaceful, From a Basement on the Hill would be a frustrating mess. But because he's dead -- and this is hard to admit from someone who holds context so loosely -- a maddening patina has accrued. This one eludes my grasp.

06

Roman Candle (1994)

A solo debut is a different beast than a true debut. The distinction is clear in the last 45 seconds of the leadoff title track: that chord progression was built to support a falsetto, cello, a full quartet, anything. But Roman Candle gives Smith a chance to demonstrate tricks that the roar of Heatmiser couldn't. "Condor Ave" and "No Name #3," in particular, have the diagonal lilt of a drunk heading home. Still, amplifier stacks might've covered up fine-on-paper couplets like "you're a crisis/ you're an icicle," from "Last Call". What we now know about Smith's gifts cause this record to be judged as a pop document. But his true aims weren't entirely clear at this point, and to the wagoneers circling their fragile friend, this was good enough: a startling departure from his band's grungy vector. With a couple collaborators, he could've had the career of a less literate Bill Callahan, or a less ambitious Kurt Cobain.

Now, however, it's obvious that this is a tentative first step to something more grandiose. Save a couple contributions on the trap kit from Pete Krebs (billed as Kid Tulsa), it's all Smith, holding a pickupless acoustic to a four-track's microphone. He spikes the crawling melody of "Roman Candle" with knucklefulls of prickly electric, held to a nagging anger. "I wanna hurt him" is the hook, the sort of white-knighting Cobain saved for interviews and diaries, but it's scary all the same. His electric adds a barroom brittleness to "Last Call"; too-precious imagery aside, it's a seether, and handles its two climaxes with aplomb, finally cresting with the repeated line "I wanted her to tell me that she would never wake me". The clearest break from business is the closer, "Kiwi Maddog 20/20". It's an instrumental, riding the surf-style spring reverb, curling like cigarette smoke. The ambling higher end presages Smith's more twinkling tunes on the records to come; such a nasty beverage hadn't been connected to this good a recording since Baby Huey reminisced about Thunderbird at the end of "Mighty Mighty."

05

New Moon (2007)

After the deliberate fuckery of From a Basement on the Hill, this collection of songs recorded from ‘94 to ‘97 was a bracing reminder of Smith's early brilliance, a dark time that appears lighter in retrospect. His death was a stunning stop after months and months of whispered concern, a massive deflation that blew cold air through his already downcast discography. And that was just for folks like you and me. New Moon was, then, an ideal release, presenting the artist as he was ascending from the basement. It's heavy on fingerpicking and intimacy, with most songs containing voice and guitar only. Smith's output was notoriously melancholy, but rarely did he come off as broken or pathologically withdrawn. Here, even the gloomier tunes are rendered with a vibrancy.

The big draw here is an early version of "Miss Misery," which allows for a glimpse into his creative process. The soundtrack version rejiggers the internal rhyme ("cold pain in my eyes" gives way to "poison rain down the drain") and ramps up the allusive imagery (he gives a performer to the palm reading and removes the decade from a movie flashing on a TV set). His showiest change is linking his first bridge with the second verse: they share the word "you," and the effect is, essentially, a jump cut. "Pretty Mary K (Other Version)" shares little more than most of a title with its sibling on Figure 8. The former is a gloomily rollicking portrait, backed by a muffled snare, reaching crushing skips at the end of his verses. "Either/Or" didn't make the cut for its titular album, but its deceptively genial, Lovin' Spoonful-esque arrangement is an IED to be lobbed, possibly, as his native scene.

New Moon also takes the chance to re-assert Smith's compositional gifts in his Heatmiser years, specifically Mic City Sons' "See You Later" and "Half Right," performed on the radio in 1996, along with Big Star's "Thirteen". Perhaps not surprisingly, the Heatmiser tracks now sound like Chilton tunes. "See You Later" in particular is missing the low end, both in Smith's once-husky vocal tones and in the bassline, which recalled, oddly, Alanis Morissette's "Hand in My Pocket." His "Thirteen" is plaintive and gracious, but unless your name is Albert Hammond, Jr., it's impossible to fuck up "Thirteen." Smith's own talent for the catchy wisp -- generally shelved, or deployed on B-sides like "I Don't Think I'm Ever Gonna Figure It Out" -- is on display here. "Whatever (Folk Song in C)" could've been written by the narrator of "Thirteen" a couple years on. Circling the phrase "what are you doin'/ hangin' out with me?", Smith pushes his sotto voce approach to the breaking point on a needy bridge, closing with a surprise: a couple of Roman Candle chords.

A tenderly curated set, New Moon is two discfuls of a craftsman's legacy, tinkering with turnarounds and bridges, exploring the possibilities of his limited pipes, suggesting a crushing rock act with a trap kit and organ. It's certainly a better introduction than the actual one: Kill Rock Stars' An Introduction to Elliott Smith, which props up the singular dimension of a troubled soul and skimps on his later years, likely due to rights issues but still. The songs aren't largely filled with melodic barbs or stinging solos. They show an artist in full command only of the powers he'd displayed to date. But it's a winning formula, glittering again and again.

04

XO (1998)

The record -- his first for Spielberg's DreamWorks -- comes frontloaded, with the spiderwalking "Sweet Adeline" (a nod to his grandmother's glee club in the title) and the masterfully picked "Tomorrow Tomorrow" preceding all the full-length, full-band efforts. It was as if, like a magician, he wanted to burn the formula in front of his listeners' eyes, then reveal the paper, unharmed. The former begins as thin as mountain air, playing coy with a wheedly organ. Halfway through, he lays into a full drumkit and tack piano, sending the titular phrase up like overlapping smoke signals. His careful approach to the melody is abandoned for the abandon of feel. "Tomorrow Tomorrow" is a harbinger of calamity strung on fingerpicked clusters, with Smith at his most lyrically elusive, multi-tracking a glum choir of witnesses. And then it's on to "Waltz #2 (XO)," perhaps his most beloved late-period tune, assuming everyone streaming "Somebody That I Used to Know" these days is looking for Gotye. Structurally, it's not his most dynamic composition (the bass is particularly bereft of ideas). Emotionally, it's a trip to hell, all that blunt chording and strangled leaps into the upper register underlining a portrait of an unappreciated woman, and the son who can't run far enough. More than anything else in his catalog, perhaps, the act of listening feels intrusive, and yet it became a cornerstone of his setlist. On the Dutch TV program "2 Meter Sessions," he halted a taped performance of the song. "I've just played it hundreds of times and I'm just sick of it," he insists, his headphones still over his ears. "I just can't play it; I'm sorry." During the sitdown, the interviewer presses him on this, and Smith changes his defense. "I had to stop it because... it's... it just... I mean, what's the point of playing a song badly?" The segment closed with a piano performance of "Miss Misery."

The simple shock of Elliott Smith exploring a studio worth a shit was enough to secure this record's reputation. It is, to be sure, an imposing shambles. He dabbled in baroque grunge-pop ("Amity"), horn-rock ("A Question Mark") and decadent-Beatle tone poems ("I Didn't Understand," "Waltz #1"). With its high-flown solo and string contrails from Jon Brion's M1 Chamberlin, "Bottle Up and Explode!" stacks up to anything composed by LA's shaggy songwriting set from a couple decades prior. Compensating for a lack of cohesion, XO bookends its content with pairs: the opening one-two punch, the closing songs about understanding. The subdued tracks gleam with fully confident melodies, and the genre dabbling benefits from total commitment. Wittingly or not, Tom Rothrock harked back to Smith's proggy teenage days with his au courant drum loop for "Independence Day"; Smith responded with a crushed-out text, climaxing with "everybody knows/ you only live a day/ but it's brilliant anyway."

03

Elliot Smith (1995)

Matthew "Slim" Moon, the founder of Kill Rock Stars, was blown out of the water by Roman Candle. As he notes to Pitchfork's Jayson Greene, he was happy to refer Smith to his preferred destination, K Records. K didn't register any reaction to Roman Candle, so Elliott began a partnership with KRS. The aesthetic remained -- expertly fingerpicked acoustic beds with vérité production -- but Smith's compositional sense was leaps ahead of where it was just a few months prior. He carves out room for solos and bridges. The instrumental touches are inspired: the galloping, doomy figure in "Christian Brothers," the suspended waltz of "The White Lady Loves You More," the droning harmonica in "Alphabet Town". It all adds up to a pungent impotence. The angry-young-drunk persona grows a green new shoot: the lonely chronicler. Last call was now a state of mind.

Around this time, Big Star's "Thirteen" made its way into his live repertoire. And while, for all his lyrical grappling with addiction, he was never a dissipated presence like Chilton, he shared his knack for wounded wisdom. "The Biggest Lie" slips arresting imagery ("a credit card registered to Smith") and devastating fake-outs ("dancing on a pot of gold/ flake paint") next to a solo that slaps a new dimension on the plaintive vocal melody. "Clementine" is as draggy as anything on Third/Sister Lovers, signing off with a po-faced anachronism ("dreadful sorry/ Clementine") while making room for superfluously wonderful vocal flourishes. "Coming Up Roses" is perhaps his high-water mark to this point, an air-tight song that still let the ghosts through, combining a crackerjack honky-tonk solo (against which he sighs and predicts XO) with wheezing harmonium.

The junkie imagery mounts a furious stand, and while it would never be far from Smith's pen, he had more to depict. As such, Elliott Smith is a rough document, a portrait of shaky crisis management only barely mitigated by a surefooted melodic sense. There's a sense of insularity that's unmatched in his catalog. On Roman Candle, his unsteady footing and the inclusion of an instrumental gave it the cast of unrealized ambition, of a rough draft. Here, he's got the songs and the presentation; he summons darkness and wraps it around him. At only one point -- the multi-tracking accusation that caps "Southern Belle" -- does he give the impression of actually addressing someone, rather than turning the churn inward. In the eyes of many, Smith could never top this set. But he did.

02

Either/Or (1997)

But for the assuring tape click, a cymbal is the first sound you hear. It's a red herring; Smith played every instrument. After two albums in the basement, he moved his possessions closer to Heatmiser's floor, and the songs do not suffer for it. A case has (and will) be made that this is his greatest collection of tunes; it's hard to argue with 37 minutes of taut, wounded tracks. Even the untitled tune is noteworthy: if George Harrison had been laid up in hospital with a demon, he's have written the harrowing, draggy "No Name No. 5". The night's still crushing everything, but Smith, finally, is ready to resist. "Cupid's Trick" rides a couple of seething crests to mantra-like lyrical repetition ("should've lit me up/it's my life") and madmaking guitar stasis. The solo is essentially a bar-band figure played three times, but its tossed-off mastery is startling in its own way. "Pictures of Me" pairs white-cloud organ with another remarkable build and breakdown; the brittle bridge is straight out of Three Dog Night's cover of "One", and acoustic and electric wind around each other in another glaring signpost for XO. If he gets a bit shrill in his upper register, it's bulldozed with a half-dozen lithe turns of phrase and rhyme so compressed it's practically internal.

Either/Or is also where Smith got unabashedly pretty. Or at least as close to it as he'd come: he sews profanity mines into "Say Yes," a song that's adorable and rueful at once. (The Village Voice's Pazz & Jop voters still maintained a fairly rigid distinction between songs and singles; the record placed 20th, but if we did it over, "Say Yes" might rate even higher.) Even in this winsome tale of romantic transference, he can't stop showing off, turning "see how it is" in a gorgeous little Lennon-esque eddy. With "Rose Parade," he finally lets himself into the non-metaphorical light, even if he doesn't care for it much. He chips off thick chords, parallels his vocal line, and bolsters his Adbusters cred by forgetting which battery company trademarked the pink rabbit. (Years later, he would misgender the god Shiva on Figure 8's "Son of Sam".) A mid-tempo power pop track, "Ballad of Big Nothing" splits the baleful and the bileful (the parade makes a cameo here, too), with Smith cradling his phrases like Alex Chilton, veering dangerously close to shaming.

Still, Smith's bread and butter are as nourishing as ever. "Alameda" would've been a great leadoff: hobbling on its hollow leg, trailed by ghostly backing vocals but haunted by organ. "Nobody broke your heart/ You broke your own because you can't finish what you start" is a great couplet, but better yet is "Face down/ Bow to the champion". Like "Miss Misery," "Between the Bars" was composed before its inclusion in Good Will Hunting (Elliott's circle had to pretend otherwise to satisfy Academy rules). It's also a waltz; here, Smith nearly merges with the the low-end plucking, compelling the listener to lean into his triple meanings and suddenly elongated phrasing. It was one of an incredible five-and-a-half tunes he contributed to the soundtrack, giving the orchestral fragment of "Bars" (an amusing premonition of his onstage Oscar treatment) partial credit. He wasn't anywhere near El Lay for the recording of Either/Or -- Humboldt County was as far south as he got -- but he proved that his talent wasn't some parochial curio to be swaddled by a scene. He was now free to pursue a fully distorted reality.

01

Figure 8 (2000)

On Figure 8, Smith builds his biggest room yet. On the posthumous follow-up, he'd stack the furniture to the roof, but here, there's space for all his tricks. Firmly an Angeleno by now, he swapped out the tools in his lyrical kit. The bars, late hours and needles were gone; in their place were traffic cops, soldiers, nurses, actors: cinematic sketches of unnamed subjects. The pre-release featured a cartoony portrait from director Mike Mills on a field of garish orange, the color of a smoggy city sunset. For many, the essential Elliott would remain the misery dealer of the first few records. A film first boosted his national profile, and it would happen again in 2001, when Elliott Smith's "Needle in the Hay" was tabbed for a pivotal scene in The Royal Tenenbaums: Luke Wilson's suicide attempt. It was a powerful combination, and its echoes burrowed their way into Smith's catalog.

But he never sounded so confident as he does here. The sequencing is a bit careless -- he alternates between exquisitely arranged pop/rock and delicate solo showcases -- but it stems from an earned indulgence. He unfurls his melodies with aplomb, projecting power without diminishing the vulnerability. The garish, why-the-fuck-not approaches of XO's "A Question Mark" and "Amity" are gone. So is the seething. What's left is plenty: the sound of a man at full command of his powers, working the entire sound spectrum, hitting the intersection of touch and feel. His turns of phrase are executed crisply; his singular voice shows less strain than ever, even as Smith dispatches it to scale melodic mountains. And, suddenly, the songs soar to match: where there were once dropouts, now there are fearsome crescendos. More than perhaps any other artist, Smith found ways to suggest the Beatles, to glean from their fields without tainting his product. Figure 8 is lousy with vocal turnarounds, grace notes, stings and piano riffs adapted from the output of post-'66 Fabs. It's incorporated as seamlessly as his prog roots and love of country weepers.

All this may sound spectacularly unimpressive: high-level competence and impersonal vignettes have not, typically, been the path to alt acclaim. But the songs are just that good. Not one overstays its welcome, and the longer cuts earn their runtime. "Happiness" was the first single, as beautiful an ode to passivity as you'll ever hear. Intro'd on a lilting acoustic figure and plodding chord-change bass, backed by an organ that eerily mimics the human voice, Smith depicts a couple hiding from each other and the world. The climactic lines "What I used to be/ Will pass away and then you'll see/ That all I want now/Is happiness for you and me" are nearly unbearably tender and resigned, buttressed with heavenly backing vocals and a two-note guitar figure that bawls like an ambulance siren. It is, essentially, his "Hey Jude," the kind of concisely expressed worldview that most songwriters will never stumble upon. And here, he did it twice. "Can't Make a Sound" begins with Smith and his acoustic, then opens up to include a yawning Harrison-esque figure. "Eyes locked and shining," he keens, "Can't you tell me/ What's happening," and suddenly, a frantically fanned electric cracks the sky. Strings work the chords as a host of Elliotts taunt the listener: "Why should you want any other/When you're a world within a world?" At its best, Figure 8 is just that: an impeccably rendered headspace, a realm that brooks no exit.

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