Pretty much every singer-songwriter who achieves any kind of success on their own eventually struggles with the same question: Keep things spare, or scale up, trying out a lusher sonic palette? Some who take the latter route stumble, but Elliott Smith soared. Figure 8 — the final album he released during his lifetime, which came out 20 years ago, on April 18th, 2000 — showed how the rich yet tasteful settings he crafted with co-producers Tom Rothrock and Rob Schnapf only highlighted the gemlike beauty of his songs.
But the idea of Smith as an indie-folk bard hung around. Even after he’d boldly embraced a vibrant sound complete with strings and horns on 1998’s XO, and taken a one-man-band approach on portions of his prior LPs, he was still having to make a case for his own versatility.
“I find it frustrating that no matter how many times I tear off my nametag, certain journalists keep slapping it back on me as though the only thing I ever did was play acoustic music,” Smith told Rolling Stone in 2000, “even though the last two records I’ve made have essentially been emulating a band.”
Really, though, there’s no wrong way to hear an Elliott Smith song, so it’s thrilling to get a taste of the Figure 8 and XO material in its most elemental state, as in the clip above. It’s a pilot for The Jon Brion Show, a variety program hosted by Brion — a composer and producer whose enormous c.v. includes work with everyone from Fiona Apple to Kanye West, Katy Perry, and Frank Ocean — and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. The episode is essentially an intimate Smith mini concert circa Figure 8: He, Brion, and renowned jazz pianist Brad Mehldau casually make their way around a studio set decorated with Christmas lights, moving among various instruments and performing absurdly gorgeous renditions of Smith songs like Figure 8′s “Everything Means Nothing to Me and “Happiness,” and XO’s “Bottle Up and Explode” and “Independence Day,” plus a handful of covers.
At one moment (around the 16:20 mark), Smith leans over to Brion and whispers something, apparently about a mistake he’d made in the previous song. Brion admits he didn’t play it perfectly either. “I don’t think the point is to make no mistakes,” Smith says with a shrug. “It’s not just not the point.”
Overall, the pilot is a charming portrait of a brilliant singer-songwriter casually exploring his catalog, free for the moment of the pressure of outside labels or expectations.
When asked by Rolling Stone if he ever tired of his music being described as “depressing,” he gave a typically straightforward yet elegant answer, one that seemed to sum up how often words can fall short when it comes to defining his or anyone else’s art:
“Yeah, it’s a superficial tag. Everybody gets a tag,” Smith said. “If you listen to a Velvet Underground record you don’t think ‘Godfathers of Punk.’ You just think, ‘Hey this is cool. It sounds great.’ The tags are there in order to help try to sell something by giving it a name that’s going to stick in somebody’s memory, but it doesn’t describe it. So ‘depressing’ is not word I would use to describe my music, but there is some sadness in it — there has to be, so that the happiness in it will matter.”