Elliot Smith has already had a pretty wide and varied career. Although he's been recording solo albums for quite some time (and getting quite a bit of critical acclaim for them), he was also in a ragged-edge semi-punk band called Heatmiser for awhile as well. While he did receive a good critical word, he also managed to fly under the radar of most listeners until 1998, when he had a song appear in a little film (at the time) that went on to do big things (Good Will Hunting). The song by Smith that appeared in the movie subsequently went on to be nominated for a Grammy alongside artists such as Celine Dion and others.
Not only that, but he also signed to a rather major label in Dreamworks for his release XO and while he still received critical acclaim for the disc, many were calling him a sellout for updating his sound with nicely backed string arrangements and much cleaner production. It was the typical backlash that comes when an independent artist gets noticed by the mainstream and although his sound changed somewhat, his overall style and lyrics really haven't that much.
With Figure 8, Smith is releasing the somewhat dreaded follow-up release on a major label and although the production is once again pristine (as opposed to a four-track recorder in a bedroom), it's still Elliot Smith underneath. The disc starts off with the almost ragtime feel of "Son Of Sam." With a jaunty little piano line and guitars that actually get cranked up at one point, it's a lively opener and gets things off on the right foot. The second track is exactly what Smith does the best, which is nothing but a simple song with his acoustic guitar and voice. While his vocals are so clean sounding that it sounds like they have effects of some sort put on them, it reminds one of the great little 2 minute tracks he's so eloquent at.
Although he doesn't use the string backing like he did on his last album, Smith still uses some interesting new elements on the album to add new layers to the music. On "Junk Bond Trader," a harpsichord rings out along with the piano (which is also used a lot more on this disc), while on "Everything Means Nothing To Me," (which along with "Easy Way Out" is one of the most simple and pretty songs on the release) his voice is filtered so it sounds like it's coming from underwater.
While it doesn't reach the amazing levels that his Either/Or album does, I'd still consider it slightly better than XO, mainly because he's for the most part gotten away from the somewhat cheesy string flourishes that coated much of the last album and somewhat took away from what I really like about his work (which is the simple, yet catchy song structures and fragile vocals). If you weren't a fan of his last disc (but liked his old stuff), you may want to check him out again, as it's another solid release from the artist.