If you’ve noticed your saddest friends slouching around with a little more mope in their stoop today, it’s for good reason. While we typically commemorate the lives of beloved celebrities and artists on their birthdays, when it comes to Elliott Smith, the occasion of his death is a more fitting time to reflect. The music of the troubled singer-songwriter, who took his own life ten years ago today, was consumed with death, whether through its meticulous dissection of the pains of alcoholism and drug abuse, or merely the dozens of every day metaphorical deaths we all trudge through. Paradoxically, it was Smith’s brutal laying bare of his own contemplation of the void that have enabled thousands of fans to confront their own mortality; despite the dour settings – the dive bars and alleyways, the hungover sunrises and bleak dusks – every song burnished with a hopefulness that, tragically, Smith himself couldn’t find solace in. The rest of us still have the songs to get us through.
Smith picks at the scars of alcohol and religion in this blistering lyrical assault from his 1994 solo debut. “So you cast your shadow everywhere like the man in the moon. You start to drink and just want to continue. It’ll all be yesteryear soon,” he sings in a cascade of loathing and spiteful indignation aimed at himself, and unnamed lover, and a non-existent god.
A standout from Smith’s early band Heatmiser laid the foundation for what would come later: pensive beauty, dynamic instrumentation, and eviscerating lyrical precision.
“Coming Up Roses”
While most of Smith’s early work could rightfully be described as minimal and reserved, this one is notable for eschewing the characteristic acoustic finger-picking style, and cresting along on a mostly-static synth line dirtied up by the occasional electric-guitar riff. It’s also essential for one of the most devastating metaphors of self-rebuke which opens the song. “I’m a junkyard full of false starts, and I don’t need your permission to bury my love under this bare light bulb.”
“Needle in the Hay”
The ravages of alcohol are nothing compared to those of heroin. Unfortunately, the latter also happens to have made for some indelible music over the years, like this slowly unfolding spill of emotion, which sinks into itself, drifting off into nothingness, the narrating losing himself, identity-less in the crush of the pile. “Leave me alone, you oughta be proud that I’m getting good marks.”
“Ballad Of Big Nothing”
While it would probably make sense to go ahead and call every song on 1995’s Either/Or essential, this is where Smith first begins to assert his stealth allegiance to pop, and gorgeous Beatlesesque melody and arrangement. It’s another evocative scene-setter – few could as quickly establish a specificity of locality in an urban cityscape as well, before moving inwards from the urban imagery to self-reflection. “You can do what you want to, whenever you want, no it doesn’t mean a thing. Big nothing.” If only he knew how wrong he was.
Seeing Smith live was often a bit of a crapshoot in terms of which performer would arrive, the unparalleled guitar wizard, or the substance-wounded, self-ashamed fumbler. Perhaps no song as well as this one shows just what he was capable of making a single guitar doing, sounding like three or four being played at once. This is a dark night of the soul. “Be forever with my poison arms around you,” he sings.
Plenty of songs on 1998’s XO continue the bottle-deep confessionals, but an increasing production budget proved a revelation for Smith, who dove head first into the studio, finally able to bring his compositions to larger life. Instead of giving in to the encroaching expectations of a suddenly somewhat commercially viable artist, songs like “Bled White” showed he could play the game without fully surrendering. Melodies are stacked upon counter-melodies, but it’s all just-skewed enough to remain removed from the popular throng. “He drinks all night to take away this curse, but it makes me feel much worse.”
“I’ll tell you why I Don’t wanna know where you are: I gotta joke I’ve been dying to tell you. Silent kid is looking down the barrel to make the noise that I kept so quiet. Kept it from you, Pitseleh.” It’s easy to go back and look for clues of suicidal thoughts after the fact. Songs like this make it even easier, but no less hard to reconcile. To no one surprise, Smith’s piano playing on this album, and toward the end of this song in particular, rivaled his deft guitar work.
The apotheosis of Smith’s studio tinkering, vocal tracks layered upon vocal tracks here show him harmonizing with himself to beautiful effect, even in a song that is, like usual, about not being able to harmonize with anyone else. “What I used to be will pass away and then you’ll see that all I want now, is happiness for you and me.”
It’s pretty hard for me to imagine Elliott Smith being very happy about much, but thinking about him recording this classic by his beloved Beatles, no matter how sad the result sounds, puts a big stupid smile on my face.