In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well—some inspired by a weekly theme and some not, but always songs worth hearing.
Prior to Pop Pilgrims’ visit to the “Elliott Smith wall” in Los Angeles, it’d been a while since I spent any significant time with Smith’s Figure 8 album. The LP was my gateway to the singer-songwriter, but in the 10 years between first hearing Figure 8 and visiting the setting of its cover photo, I’d grown fonder of earlier, rawer Smith recordings; when I wanted to hear what Smith was capable of with a major-label budget, 1998’s XO made for a more satisfying end-to-end listen than its somewhat scattered follow-up. And in many ways, Figure 8 had taken on the qualities of a high-school yearbook photo, a document of a time past that I wasn’t eager to revisit because of the uncomfortable, uneasy parts of myself it reflected.
So it’s fitting that in the days leading up to the video shoot—and most days since—I found myself listening to “Somebody I Used To Know” at least once a day. Figure 8’s second track is also one of its most intimate, just Smith’s voice (double-tracked, naturally), his acoustic guitar (with its own overdubbed duet partner), and some rhythmic thumping that recalls The Beatles’ similarly spare “Two Of Us.” It’s a bittersweet post-breakup song about how it takes two to move on—though all it really takes is the acceptance that neither is the person they started the relationship as. (And that precision is where it bests the other, better-known “Somebody That I Used To Know.”) But there’s a touch of self-acceptance in the song as well, a sense that subject and singer are one and the same—or at least they were at one time. And if they’re not anymore, that’s okay. There’s no sense in being embarrassed about the person you used to be, no sense in pitching “a living past,” and no sense in completely ignoring anything or anyone who informed who you are today.