Best album of his career. You can see it: every album, a different step. Roman Candle coasts on pure seethe, a hushed back-room catharsis. Elliott Smith found him injecting strains of pop/rock songcraft (the guitar break in "Coming Up Roses," more ambitious harmonies - or at least ambitiously stacked duplicate Elliotts, his increasing reliance on his upper register). He got positively bouncy on Either/Or, moving away from the hypnotic turnarounds in favor of ever-maturing, ever-ambitious strumcraft.
XO is the quantum leap, bathing a lyrical sensibility that might've threatened to get tired in masterful arrangements. Here's where the modern Elliott sound solidifies: those cloudy backing vocals that loft and merge with the main lines, judiciously-deployed bits of string sections, songs that spike in intensity, and a sense for shutting up and letting the instrumental break seethe for you. His subject matter was branching slightly, as well: Smith began with songs so personal that he didn't dare name them; by XO he'd written two indelible love songs ("Say Yes" and "Independence Day," both dizzyingly skilled balances of sentiment and wistfulness (and dread, in the case of the latter).
Then Figure 8. While the diversity of approaches in XO had been toned down some, Smith (with the invaluable help of producers Rob Schnapf and Tom Rothrock) finally made the leap to songwriter's songwriter. Some of his familiar imagery pokes through: the army, medicine, though not addiction, interestingly. Heroin had not taken hold yet.
Just reciting these lines is kind of banal - as usual, songs minus music = pale pretension. But still, there's something in the way he sang his phrases that translates. "Something’s happening, don’t speak too soon/I told the boss off and made my move/Got nowhere to go/Son of Sam, son of the shining path, the clouded mind/The couple killer each and every time" is a neat little depiction of a mind on its own track; paired with a tinkling honky-tonk piano and a close-mic'd snare.
See, he needed this kind of production. His ragged voice had to be cloaked in a warm, West Coast sound: reverb and swell. "Color Bars" is my favorite track these days, a wind-up contraption kicking off with the familiar acoustic strum, taking wing on a simple, ringing piano melody. "I see color bars/When I come," Smith sings, summoning the old anger, "The sergeant rock broke the key off in the lock/To where i come from." "Can't Make a Sound" has a first section straight out of Either/Or: Smith and his guitar sing about silent movies, but it's the denouement - a tumultuous assault of crash cymbals, overloaded guitar, and full orchestra - that's remarkable. "Why should you want any other," muse a multitude of Elliotts over a stringed lament, "when you're a world within a world?"
There are a couple half-developed ideas, like the tone-poem "Everything Means Nothing to Me," and the throwback "Pretty Mary K," but it doesn't matter, not with the little-boy-lost 50's-r'n'r-cum-French-horn of "Stupidity Tries". Not with the bleary-eyed rocker "LA," grateful for chances nearly lost: "Living in the day/But last night I was about to throw it all away."
Despite my blather, I really do feel this record speaks for itself. Figure 8 is a man of full faculty, and tune after tune fulfills the promise of the Zombies' fading sunshine.