Elliott Smith, Intercessory Psalmist

This post, in partial attempt to push my last post under the radar, is more in my line of pseudo-expertise and at least non-inflammatory interest…

On 6 August 2009 Elliott Smith would have turned 40 years old.  Instead, on 21 October 2009 we grieve six years without him.  Readers may or may not know who Elliott Smith was (or is), but if you’ve heard the film soundtracks for either Good Will Hunting, Hurricane Streets, American Beauty, Keeping the Faith, Antitrust (sadly), The Royal Tenenbaums, Thumbsucker, Georgia Rule (unfortunately), The Go-Getter, or Paranoid Park, or if you’ve played through Guitar Hero 5, you’ve been exposed to at least a portion of his work.  If you’ve not heard any of that, maybe you saw the 70th Academy Awards (1998) and caught his performance “Miss Misery,” which was nominated for best original song (losing to James Horner and Will Jennings for “My Heart Will Go On,” from the film Titanic).  Though he never experienced a great degree of commercial success, Elliott Smith has left a legacy of what I believe are some of the best pop/folk songs ever written.

Elliott Smith’s singing voice can be characterized as a tenor-whisper (which is also doubled in most tracks – Elliott is among the finest/if not the finest doubling singers I’ve ever heard).  When I first heard his unique voice I didn’t know what to expect regarding his looks.  The first time you see a picture of Elliott after hearing his voice you might ask yourself, “Really?”  Yet when you see a live performance (something now only possible through video recordings) the deep honesty of his voice is a perfect complement to the deep honesty of his weathered face.

Lyrically Elliott is typically rather dark, which typically leaves his listeners ultimately unsurprised (though devastated) when they learn of his suicide.  His lyrics often feature the themes of existential despair, love (or the absence of such) and the looming prospect of taking one’s own life (“Instruments shine on a silver tray | Don’t let me get carried away | Don’t let me get carried away | Don’t let me be carried away” – last lines on From a Basement on the Hill‘s ‘King’s Crossing’, one of the last songs he ever wrote).

But contrary to accusations I’ve often heard against it, Elliott’s music is not a tool for thrusting oneself into despair.  I cannot precisely explain the emotional quality that draws me into Elliott Smith’s music, but it is not one that is dismal so much as it is honest.  When I listen to Elliott Smith I find an advocate, a counselor, one not above the darkness, but in its midst.  Like the Psalmist, Elliott cries out for me when I have no words.  And that is what gives Elliott the edge in my musical library: he is so substantive and of this earth.  His passions, his pains, his loves, his hates, his strengths, and his weaknesses are all laid out with the utmost artistic integrity.  I truly believe every word that comes from his mouth, or at least I believe that he believes what he is singing.

If you’re looking for shallow comfort listen to The Beach Boys’ ‘Wouldn’t it Be Nice’, one of my favourite pop songs of all time.  But if you want to experience someone’s heart laid out before you and if you want to taste both the sweetness and bitterness of a true artist, give Elliott Smith a listen, a long intentional listen.

Elliott Smith Full-Length Releases

Let me first say that I consider every Elliott Smith album an excellent album, and I don’t award such praise lightly (at least I don’t think I do…).

01 Roman Candle

From 1991 to 1996 Elliott sang/played guitar in the alternative rock band Heatmiser.  While in the band he began his solo career, resulting in 1994’s Roman Candle, nine tracks (the last one instrumental) that Elliott had not actually intended on releasing in album form.  With this in mind, Roman Candle is much less cohesive than Elliott’s later releases, but still showcases his exceptional musical/writing ability, as well as the signature lo-fi production that characterizes most of his music.

02 Elliott Smith

Elliott released his self-titled album in 1995, like Roman Candle, while still in Heatmiser.  This album includes the track, “Needle in the Hay,” featured in the film The Royal Tenenbaums.

03 Either-Or

Either/Or, released in 1997, follows in the same vein as Elliott’s first two releases.  The title comes from Søren Kierkegaard’s book, Enten ‒ Eller. Several songs from this album were used in the film Good Will Hunting (though “Miss Misery,” the song for which Elliott was nominated for an Academy Award, was written specifically for the film and saw no studio album release).

04 XO

Elliott followed Either/Or with 1998’s XO, his first release through DreamWorks and thus his first release on a major label.  Elliott’s earlier philosphical/aesthetic sentiments are present, but begin to manifest themselves differently through this album, which features more instruments and better production.

05 Figure 8

Following in the same musical/productive trajectory of XO, Elliott released Figure 8 in 2000.  This album is simply incredible.  The cover photo was taken in front of the A/V repair shop Solutions in Los Angeles by photographer Autumn de Wilde.  If you’re in Los Angeles you can visit and leave a message on the wall (located at 4334 W. Sunset Blvd.), which has become an unofficial Elliott Smith memorial.

06 From a Basement on the Hill

At the time of his death, Elliott was still working on this album, which was released posthumously in 2004.  Though we don’t have Elliott’s final product here, his former producer along with his girlfriend compiled this album from the material he had been working on in the studio.  They did a good job.

07 New Moon

This album is actually a compilation of B-sides, outtakes and rarities generally from the self-titled and Either/Or sessions, and the style/production is predominantly reflective of that period.  It was released in 2007.

For more information on Elliott Smith visit Sweet Adeline, his official website.


10 thoughts on “Elliott Smith, Intercessory Psalmist”

  1. I often forget how grateful I am that Greg introduced me to Elliott. I own and love all of these albums (except Heatmiser… never tried them, maybe because it’s not pure Elliott). I had the pleasure to see him perform 3 times, twice in L.A. and once in London, and he was amazing… though my good friend Chris says that his later concerts were quite depressing as he was very “under the influence”.

    His lyrics are amazing, and spectacularly raw and dark and yet for some reason I would not hesitate to classify his music as beautiful. He’s one of the only people for whom I remember exactly when and where I was when I heard he died.

    Thanks for sharing Elijah. Anybody who isn’t aware of his music is certainly missing out.

  2. Two things…

    First, regarding Heatmiser, I really enjoy their last record, Mic City Sons. Do you recall “Half Right” from New Moon? Well the Heatmiser version is in a different key and actually much better in my opinion. This record has several other simply incredible tracks and is definitely worth investing in.

    As for exactly when and where you were when you heard he died, I can say exactly the same thing regarding my experience.

    When I get back to the United States we should go for a drive and listen to an Elliott Smith record in its entirety.


  3. I’ve always been so jealous of Mark seeing E. Smith perform live (and the “sneakers” t-shirt he got at one show) that many times. I wish I could have had that experience.

    I’ve also always been jealous of Mark’s good looks & physique, natural charm and his intellectual brilliance.

    Of Elijah, I have been also jealous of his looks (including cat eyes), his unbelievable natural artistic talent in almost any media, and his songwriting/performing ability.

  4. Gosh…I am completely at a loss of words. I am honored that the venerable Sgt. Grumbles would heap such undeserving praise upon me, a meager folk singer.

  5. I’ve listened to Elliot Smith quite a bit, but this post makes me feel like I should give him a bit more attention.

    Great list of films where his music appears on the soundtrack. It is interesting that so many good films are represented here… American Beauty, Royal Tenenbaums, Paranoid Park… Good films, but also a bit off the beaten track. Yes. Interesting.

  6. I saw Elliott Smith once when I lived in Denver at the insistence of a girl who lived in my dorm, and I’m really glad I did. I knew very little about him at the time, but I really fell for his music starting with that show. I’m surprised that Figure 8 is such a big one for you E- that was actually the falling-off point for me. I’d guess that would be explained by different entry points to his music- maybe I should give figure 8 another listen. After careful, obsessive listens to everything the guy recorded from Roman Candle to XO (and a little Heatmiser), I eventually came to the conclusion that Either/Or is his best record (and a perfect record at that) but that Roman Candle is my favorite. That is to say, if I had to recommend one, it would be Either/Or, but if I had to pick one for exile on a desert island, it would be Roman Candle.

  7. Pete,

    Thanks for the contribution. I have a quick comment about Either/Or…

    I would say that it is nearly perfect, but it has one huge blemish, “Cupids Trick.” This song isn’t the worst song I’ve ever heard, but it is the worst Elliott Smith song I’ve ever heard, and I’ve consistently felt that way for years. The main reason why it feels so terrible is that it – a redundant alt rock piece – is nestled between two much stronger acoustic tracks (“Angeles” & “2:45 AM”). It really ruins the mood of the second half of the album for me. For that aesthetic, I think I have to split my affections between all three (RC, ES, E/O), but I really think that the self-titled album is his strongest from that period. Still – and maybe this has to do with my biggest exposure to Elliott coming in the late 90s/early 00s at the beginning of high school – I have usually preferred Figure 8.

  8. Elijah, I had to throw the album on today just to listen to that song and see what you’re talking about. I agree that “Cupid’s Trick” is the weakest song of the album, but it’s not distractingly bad for me. In other words, it’s not bad enough to tarnish Either/Or’s perfect album status (though it would be interesting to compile a list of songs that compromise otherwise perfect albums) IMHO. In fact, it’s almost a nice contrast in its rockingness, setting the stage for the incredible 1-2 punch that finishes out the album. But yeah, it’s weak for sure.

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