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…).
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.