Misery loves Elliott Smith. And Smith, in turn, loves misery. On his fifth album, Figure 8, Smith, along with co-producers Tom Rothrock and Rob Schnapf, pumps up the volume and turns his gloom into an arty reflection on life, love, and desolation. In other words, nothing new for the cult hero/singer-songwriter/king of pain. But unlike the Beatlesque melodics and wall of sound that flowed through his last album, XO, Figure 8 is more traditional, a recollection of singer-songwriters past filtered through a modern lens. There are still some finger-picking/strumming acoustic tunes here (the sort that populated Either/Or, his somber 1997 breakthrough disc), but the emphasis this time around is on cracking the mainstream.
Not that Smith is capable of such shallow aspirations. He's the most reluctant Oscar nominee ever ("Miss Misery," from Good Will Hunting, was up for Best Original Song in 1997), and you can almost feel his apprehension dripping from the songs. He's a bit more assured and open on Figure 8. And while Rothrock and Schnapf's production isn't as brave as it was on XO, the standard they follow is a time-tested one: Let the singer sing.
And that Smith does, with his fragile voice cresting along the waves of his even more delicate melodies. Even when he rewrites someone with such fortitude as Dylan on "Somebody That I Used to Know," a thematic and musical modification of "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right," Smith appears on the verge of a major breakdown. He quivers and quakes, shivers and shakes; he isn't quite sure where love is going to lead him, and he's even less certain he wants to find out. Like the diagram of the album's title, Smith keeps circling back on himself, repeating the same lines and mistakes, looking for an exit.
Yet much of the melancholy is leveled by the resonance of the full band. "Son of Sam" sneaks piano, Hammond organ, and a fuzzy electric guitar solo into the mix, essentially forcing Smith to confront his notorious shyness through their sheer power. At other times he slides between his folk instincts and more pop-oriented ones. And it's here, cozying up to the sadness within, that Smith sort of figures out the complexity of Figure 8.