Sunday, October 15, 2006

elliott smith

Paul’s note: This is Scott’s fifth contribution to (at least) one cool thing. Previously he has written about television, movies, travel and a game. Today he discusses one of his favorite music artists (and, shockingly, he wasn’t signed to 4AD). Scott writes:

I'm always on the search for new music, but these days my avenues of discovery are few. But four years ago I caught a song near the end of The Royal Tenenbaums. The song was Needle in the Hay by the artist Elliott Smith.

Needle in the Hay (live at KCRW)

Surprisingly, it is not that often that I feel compelled to fast-forward to the end of a movie to find the music credits, but this song really caught my ear, and I had to find out who created it. (The next year the song was New Slang by The Shins from Garden State, a song that will not soon leave my own “stuck in the MP3 player” list).

Steven Paul Smith (official site) was born in 1969 to a slightly-mixed-up family in Nebraska, moved to Texas a year later with his then-divorced mother, and grew up in a life of suburban boredom, strife, alcoholism, and angst. As is often true in life, this unfortunate environment proved to be the crucible for development of a budding songwriter, lyricist, and musician. But it was his move to the Northwest at age 14 to be with his psychiatrist father that opened up avenues emotionally, developmentally, and musically. He quickly found an interest in the philosophical themes of his father's work, and he found inspiration in the active music scene of the area.

The thing that immediately caught me about Smith's songs were their simplicity, their softness, and yet their power. Especially in the first couple of albums, it is just he and his guitar. And yet with just voice and strings, he manages to create albums completely full of unique tunes that rarely fail to satisfy. 1994's Roman Candle (Amazon) has the brilliant No Name #3, but it is his 1995 eponymous release (Amazon) that finds him hitting his groove, with the outstanding Christian Brothers, Clementine, Southern Belle, and the previously mentioned Hay.

This is followed up in 1997 by the bigger-label release Either/Or (Amazon), which might well be considered yet another major step up, with the possible exception of the fact that many more accompanying instruments are added - removing some of the naked simplicity of his songs. Regardless, the tracks Rose Parade, Ballad of Big Nothing, Between the Bars, No Name #5, Cupid's Trick and Alameda are so perfect that I can't argue with the change in production.

Alameda (from the Either/Or demos)
Ballad of Big Nothing (from the Either/Or demos)

As alluring, melodic and catchy as his tunes are, it is his lyrics that get you to want to know more about the artist. I don't give two flips about the bands that can turn an occasional catchy riff into a hit song. But show me an artist that can manage to bare his soul, share some wisdom, and show a flair for poetry, all the while managing to maintain a power of melody, and I want to know more. In the lyrical and emotional category, Elliott Smith does not disappoint.

A survey of some of his lyrics shows the demons that haunt him: depression, alcoholism, anger, alienation, and suicide. Rarely do these themes stray far from his pen, starting at his earliest age (his first song was written at age 16). The haunting and beautiful No Name #3 on his first album is evidently in reference to fights between his mother and stepfather.

we arrived too late
you're a witness, you
you've seen me interrupt
a good old fashioned fight
so, come on night
everyone is gone
home to oblivion
Samples from the second album show he hasn't gotten all the demons out. From Christian Brothers ("nightmares become me") and Clementine:

you drank yourself into slo-mo
made an angel in the snow
anything to pass the time

Or The Biggest Lie:

i'm tired of dancing on a pot of gold flake paint
oh we're so very precious, you and i
and everything that you do makes me want to die
oh i just told the biggest lie
From Either/Or's Alameda:

you walk down alameda
shuffling your deck of trick cards over everyone
like some precious only son
face down, bow to the champion
and Rose Parade:

everyone's interest is stronger than mine
and when they clean the street
i'll be the only shit that's left behind
Future albums continued the lyrical and emotional trend, and continued the trend towards bigger production. Success came, too, including an Academy Award nomination (performance photo) for Good Will Hunting's original song Miss Misery. Throughout it all Smith's fundamentals of soul and song prevailed. His spirit, however, did not.

Perhaps 1998's Independence Day from XO (Amazon) was a presage:

you only live a day
but it's brilliant anyway
i saw you in a perfect place
it's gonna happen soon but not today
so go to sleep and make the change
i'll meet you here tomorrow
independence day
or 2000's Color Bars from Figure 8 (Amazon):

everyone wants me to ride into the sun
but i ain't gonna go down
laying low again, high on the sound
Whether foretold, or self-fulfilled, or just the power of negative thinking, Elliott Smith entered a long dark personal period after 2000's release Figure 8. Friends told of long bouts of alcoholism, drug use, deep depression, and fits of combativeness.

At times, he seemed to be coming out of the spiral, and began writing again - what would eventually become the album From a Basement on a Hill (Amazon). But it was not too much of a shock to his close friends when news was released that he died of a knife wound to his heart in October of 2003. Early autopsy reports pointed at suicide, but the final conclusion will never be definitively known. But his close friends, and his avid fans, know that he was flying a little too close to the sun to not get burned.

Elliott Smith was quoted in 2001 as having said "I don't like the idea of being buried. I would prefer to walk out into the desert and be eaten by birds." I take this as a yearning to not be forgotten, but to live on – however darkly - in the lives of others. His soul may have walked into the unknown, but his impact, his voice, his heart, live on forever.

Bonus link 1: His fantastic May 1997 performance on KCRW. Setlist: division day, angeles, needle in the hay, say yes

Bonus link 2:
Elliott Smith B-Sides, an incredible resource and source for demo versions of most of the music discussed above. Basement II is a must download as are the Either/Or demos.