The first compact disc that I ever purchased was Jewel's Pieces of You. The first thing I did was listen to the first track (Who Will Save Your Soul?), before skipping to the next track I knew, track 10 (You Were meant for Me). It was 1996, I was 12 years old, and I listened to those two songs on a loop for the first three days. My family was on a road trip across New Mexico, and anything to sate my near boundless litany of comments and inquiries must have been a relief.
Slowly, as the novelty of those tracks wore thin, I began to explore the rest of the album. I wanted nothing to do with the tracks that my ears couldn't classify; a steady diet of Top 40 had conditioned me to shy away from anything that contained too much emotion or contained jagged edges.
This is the way I approached music for the next few years. I would skip over the parts of a CD I wasn't comfortable with or didn't understand. I would glut myself on the one marketable song that I had heard on the radio, pick up one or two favorites from the rest, and feel I had actually heard the music. Considering my next purchase was Spice Girls' "Spice"; I'm sure I missed little from this technique.
In 2002, I began my Freshman year at Texas A&M University and lived in Walton, an all male dorm. My roommate was a paranoid schizophrenic who drank heavily and felt like I was always ignoring him. When I did study in my room, I needed music.
Figure 8 taught me the importance of the album. A collection of songs artfully arranged in a particular order with a very specific aural experience in mind. This is specifically why Greatest Hits collections are a terrible idea for anyone who wants to listen to a song in its proper context. Listening to a collection assembled by someone's estate is akin to reading a compendium of an author's work composed of chapters from his various novels thrown together higglety pigglety.
When I put on my headphones to shut out that drunken loon with no boundaries, I opened myself up to the idea of music as personal identity. Of course my taste in music had defined me before, but Elliott Smith felt like my personal secret, a clear indicator that I was someone worth noticing in this undulating sea of undergraduates.
• Son of Sam
• Somebody That I Used to Know
• Junk Bond Trader
• Everything Reminds Me of Her
• Everything Means Nothing to Me
• In the Lost and Found (Honky Bach)/The Roost
• Stupidity Tries
• Easy Way Out
• Wouldn't Mama Be Proud?
• Color Bars
• Happiness/The Gondola Man
• Pretty Mary K
• I Better Be Quiet Now
• Can't Make a Sound
On several of the tracks Smith chronicles the struggle of the individual to hold onto their idealism; most of them fail outright. On one track he laments "It's all about, taking the easy way out for you, I suppose." Smith has no answers on how to lead a more authentic life; he merely sits on the sidelines, impotent.
Whether or not he was on drugs at the time, this album is a chronicle of his years of heroin use. No one that you can trust; no real, stable relationships. Your landscape becomes one of coffeehouses, laundromats at dawn, "neon arabesques of motels where marooned pimps scream obscenities at passing cars from islands of rubbish" as Burroughs wrote in Naked Lunch. And, as you gather the host of your misspent hours around you, you find yourself condemning those around you who didn't love you enough to stay, and hating yourself for never being able to escape.
Figure 8 is infused with a persistant tremor of nostalgia. Even the instruments he uses seem outdated, faraway and forlorn. Smith sings about lovers, friends, and confidants that he has known and loved, but the there is not a single "love" song to be found. These songs are about the slow death of relationships, the bitter regret of losing someone, and Smith's own loneliness. Smith criticizes and chastises, contemplates suicide, and is finally left alone, mute, and powerless. It is wistful, and beautiful, and well crafted.