Post-Millennial Masterpiece: “Easy Way Out,” a Typically Downcast Gem from Elliott Smith’s ‘Figure 8’

Elliott Smith delivered just one record after the turn of the millennium while he was still alive. He intended the album to be more upbeat, because he was tired of his music being labelled as depressing or unrelentingly sad. And yet, with songs like the brilliant “Easy Way Out,” it was clear that an upbeat outlook for him was easier said than done.

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Hailing from the 2000 album Figure 8, “Easy Way Out” was either a kiss-off of disappointment to an ex-lover or a withering bit of self-criticism. In any case, it’s quite emblematic of Elliott Smith’s singular, sorely missed genius.

Go Figure

Acoustic singer/songwriters who release hushed musings on the impossibility of love usually get cult followings, not major-label backing. Yet Elliott Smith released the last two albums of his life with the big-budget backing of DreamWorks. That’s what can happen when your music is exposed to a massive audience that otherwise would have been ignorant of it, as Smith’s was when included in the sleeper hit movie Good Will Hunting.

Academy Award nominations for Best Song don’t come to indie artists often, and Smith wasn’t indie for much longer. It’s interesting to ponder his relationship with DreamWorks in what it meant to his career. On the one hand, his songs often betrayed ambivalence about reaching a level of success and exposure of which he alternately felt suspicious or unworthy.

Then again, it’s impossible to imagine Smith’s 2000 album Figure 8 happening in the same way without the budget at his disposal to explore his musical whims. The Nebraska-born artist unabashedly loved The Beatles and all the musical experimentation they fostered. He indulged his own baroque tendencies on Figure 8, as the confessional lyrics were adorned with a kaleidoscopic palette of sound.

Part of Smith’s motivation for going the big-production route was to prove he could deliver music of a more upbeat nature. At least that was the plan. Even as horns, strings, organs, and all manner of baroque touches endow the songs with circus-like atmospheres, Smith’s voice could never rid itself of its natural ache.

Hence, you get songs like “Easy Way Out.” It’s as delicately constructed as any Fab Four ballad, with swooning backing vocals, sighing guitar, and tender melody. But the lyrics work against that grain, with evocations of deep disappointment that manifests itself in bitter putdowns. That push and pull is what makes this song so fascinating, and that kind of dichotomy can be found throughout the enthralling Figure 8.

What is the Meaning of “Easy Way Out”?

It’s impossible to know the target of “Easy Way Out.” Because Smith addresses a You throughout the song, it’s natural to assume he’s talking about somebody in his life. Then there’s the interpretation Smith is actually referring to himself, taking himself to task for how he’s come to this point.

In any case, he doesn’t hold back, especially on the refrain line: It’s all about taking the easy way out for you, I suppose. This tendency keeps emerging when singing of this person’s relationships with others: There’s no escape for you, except in someone else. In other words, they can’t bear to be left alone to contemplate their actions, which is why they need others in their life to deflect the attention.

Smith suggests they can only do this so many times before it eats them away; note how he wishes luck to whatever’s left of you in the middle eight. But the narrator is also somewhat hurt that they’ve been left behind by this person, lashing out about their latest lover: I heard you found another audience to bore / A creative thinker who imagined you were more / A new body for you to push around and pose.

It’s fruitless to spend too much time wondering whom Smith was imagining. What’s important is his skill at making this song into something we can all cathartically use when we’re feeling frustration at a friend, a lover, or even ourselves. For “Easy Way Out” is Elliott Smith at his gentlest and fiercest all at once.

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Photo by Theo Wargo/WireImage

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