Elliott Smith - Five Years On
Five years ago tomorrow, on 22nd October 2003, I was sitting in my college library browsing the internet when I saw a surprising headline on BBC news. The singer/songwriter Steven Paul “Elliott” Smith had been found dead in his apartment a day earlier, of two stab wounds to the chest, at the age of 34. The circumstances of his death will probably always remain a mystery – while an apparent case of suicide (as Popbitch put it, “the most emo death ever”), there was sufficient doubt over the role of his girlfriend Jennifer Chiba that the coroner recorded an open verdict. But this isn’t the place to speculate over such things – on this, the fifth anniversary of his death, I just want to talk a bit about why Elliott’s music means so much to me, and why his absence still hurts.
I know it’s a bit daft to feel too sad over the death of a celebrity, especially one who you’d never even met. And Elliott lived such a turbulent life, riddled with depression, self-loathing and drug abuse, that he never seemed destined to quietly settle into old age. What makes it all the more surprising that his death hit me so hard, though, is that I’d, shamefully, only heard a relatively small portion of his back catalogue at the time it had happened. Even then, mind, the album I did own – 2000’s Figure 8, ironically enough considered to be one of his weaker efforts – had been an integral influence on my taste and listening habits during my post-adolescent period; and in particular, during a difficult period I was going through in the latter half of 2003, the very year he died, certain songs of his had proven to be a genuine comfort.
It’s something of a cliché that the death of an artist is one of the best things that can happen to their record sales – and I didn’t particularly want to be part of that vulture-like culture. Nevertheless, I felt sufficiently guilty about never having fully explored his music while he was alive – and sufficiently moved by the circumstances of his life and death, the more I read about him – that I felt an obligation to further delve into the work of someone who’d already meant a surprising amount to me. What I discovered was that Elliott’s music – both as written and as performed – has the ability reach inside and pull at the fabric of my soul like just about no-one else I’ve ever heard.
It’s not like he was the most groundbreaking or influential musician. In truth, that side of him was relatively simple. He had two distinct phases, each preferred to differing degrees by various sections of his fanbase - his earlier albums were pure, stripped-down, one-man-and-his-guitar acoustic stylings; whereas a shift in the late ’90s saw him move towards a more Beatlesy, pop-influenced sound that took in all manner of arrangements and instrumentation (including using piano, rather than guitar, as the driving force behind a good number of his songs). While it’s probably heresy among the majority of Smith’s fans to say it, for the most part I actually prefer the more complex sound of these later albums - he had a superb knack for constructing harmony, for layering his sound, and this is most evident on what I feel to be his masterpiece, 1998’s XO (itself recorded at none other than Abbey Road, and also - controversially - his major label debut following a switch to Dreamworks). In both eras, though, his strongest sense was one of melody - with particular emphasis on transitions, apparently his favourite part of any song.
What really made Elliott’s records, though, were his vocals. He had a beautiful, delicate voice, memorably described as “spiderweb-thin” - and yet had little to no confidence in it whatsoever. Ironically enough, though, this self-doubt would lead to one of the most distinctive elements of his sound - unconvinced of his voice’s ability to carry songs on its own, he would frequently multi-track it, creating gorgeous layered harmonies. This is perhaps most evident on his stunning cover of the Beatles’ “Because”, featured on the closing credits of American Beauty (and one of the only examples I can think of where someone’s covered a Lennon/McCartney song and improved it), or on Figure 8’s “Everything Means Nothing To Me”, with its repeated yet ever-building refrain. It’s the voice, more than anything, that gets inside me like a piece of grit in my heart - certain moments in his songs will bring me out in goosebumps, or even spark an involuntary tear on occasion.
It’s easy enough, if you’re being simplistic, to write Elliott’s songs off as “music to slit your wrists to”. But there’s so much more to it than that. Yes, his lyrics were extremely dark at times, reflecting his own life and personal demons. And yes, there’s something deeply melancholy about much of his distinctive sound - the combination of near-exclusive use of minor chords and that heart-rending voice. But it’s a good kind of melancholy. Some music that people would think of as “depressing” is just that - but Elliott’s was more comforting. Perhaps it was that he would, like Morrissey, dress up such dark lyrics in such appealing tunes (minor key or no minor key), but while you may listen to his music when you’re feeling sad, you don’t necessarily do it to wallow or be melodramatic. There can be beauty, and a strange sort of contentment, in sadness - and whether intentionally or otherwise, I think that’s something Elliott’s music frequently encapsulated.
It’s true that if you just don’t “get” Elliott, you probably never will. But I wonder just how many people are only aware of him as “that depressed singer-songwriter who killed himself” (if they know even that), and who would be genuinely surprised to discover what a beautiful, engaging and downright classic body of work he produced in his all-too-short career. The purpose of my writing this, then, is twofold - firstly, to pay tribute to someone I feel is a genuine great, whose music has genuinely either helped me or just struck a chord at certain times, and who I feel is a tragic loss to the world; and secondly, in the hope that some of you who may pay any kind of attention to what I’m talking about might be inspired to go and check out some of his work. To that end, I leave you with a selection of songs drawn from across his back catalogue, that if you were so inclined, you might want to download a few of and hear what all the fuss was about.
It’s been a long five years. We still miss you, man.
An Elliott Smith Playlist
1. “Miss Misery” (Good Will Hunting soundtrack, 1998)
The song that led to one of the most incongruous moments in the history of the entertainment industry - as Elliott stood onstage at the 1998 Academy Awards, looking more alone and fragile in his white suit than even he had ever done. And he still lost to Celine Dion, for fuck’s sake.
2. “Needle in the Hay” (Elliott Smith, 1995)
If you only know one Smith song, it’s probably this one, because it featured so prominently in The Royal Tenenbaums. It’s not my favourite, but it’s a significant entry in his canon, and still fairly haunting.
3. “Pretty (Ugly Before)” (From A Basement On The Hill, 2004)
An absolutely heartrending moment from his posthumous final album (and as a 7” single, it was also the last thing released while he was alive). Kind of relentless, you can hear genuine pain in his voice - but it’s a beautifully-arranged song.
4. “No Name #3” (Roman Candle, 1994)
One of the lighter, sweeter moments from his lo-fi debut, this is fairly simple, but a lovely melody.
5. “Stupidity Tries” (Figure 8, 2000)
His poppiest - and probably most accessible - album, Figure 8 features the closest that Elliott ever came to “jaunty” or “upbeat”, with the single “Son of Sam” and this terrific Beatlesy track.
6. “Waltz #2 (XO)” (XO, 1998)
If I could make you listen to one Elliott Smith song, it would be this. An absolutely wonderful, incredible, beautiful, heartbreaking piece of music, this is pretty high on the list of “tracks I want playing at my funeral”. I get goosebumps every time I hear it, and have to stifle a tear most of the time as well. The full-band version has, for me, a stronger effect - but it’s also well worth hearing this awesome acoustic performance.
7. “Abused” (unreleased demo)
While an album of rarities titled New Moon was released in 2007 (see below), there are a bunch of other tracks floating around the ‘net under the title “Basement II” - although despite the misleading title, only some of the tracks were from Basement on the Hill sessions. This is probably the standout omission from New Moon - the lyrics are difficult, but it’s a superbly powerful track. I can only imagine what a properly-produced version might have sounded like.
8. “Angel in the Snow” (New Moon, 2007)
By contrast, this track - which did make it on to New Moon - is short, sweet and lovely. It also works nicely in its raw form. A good example (another coming below) of how he could write pleasant love songs as well as examinations of depression.
9. “Because” (American Beauty soundtrack, 1999)
I’ve already discussed this track above, but by God, it sends all kinds of shivers right down my spine.
10. “Say Yes” (Either/Or, 1996)
Put this on a mix CD for someone you fancy, and if it doesn’t make their heart melt, then they’re probably already dead. Just an utterly perfect, deceptively simple love song.