Elliott Smith

There are lots of words to toss around when Elliott Smith comes up — brilliant, troubled, influential, tragic, one-of-a-kind – each of which fit the music as much as the man. But if pressed for a single descriptor, I’d choose fragile.

His early lo-fi works laid bare a burning core of pain and confusion, the flickering, smoldering remains of a roman candle wrapped in an introvert’s hushed facade. Smith’s vocal trembled with anger (my lord, the terrifying passion when he intoned “I want to hurt him”) and with longing (MY LORD, the resignation wallowing beneath “See how it is/ They want you or they don’t”). He was a junkyard full of false starts; life made a whisper out of him. To put on one of those soul-bearing early solo records was to tap into a rawness that can’t help but connect. It freezes you. It’s the sound of a weary creature being barely held together by sheer force of will, fighting to hold on but losing his grip.

Later in his solo career, with Jon Brion’s help, Smith wrapped those wounds in elaborate arrangements just as fragile as he was. Songs like “Waltz #2 (XO)” and “Colorbars” were draped with carefully crafted papier-mâché; it was gorgeous to behold and impossibly simple to cut through and find the real him in there — still flickering, still smoldering. There was no hiding behind it for long, just a temporary respite for the withering wanderer underneath.

Ten years ago today, I was an unseasoned college radio DJ attending CMJ Music Marathon in New York, my first music festival. The air was abuzz with excitement, but soon that turned to sorrow as the news began to spread. Smith was dead, the victim of stab wounds to the heart, apparently self-inflicted. I wrote a column for the college paper, made the inevitable reference to suicide scene from The Royal Tenenbaums, sat stunned for a while, brought it up with anybody who’d listen. Smith’s seemingly inevitable collapse was shaking nonetheless. No life should be cut short like that, much less by one’s own hand, much less a man whose music was a comfort to so many other fragile souls.

So we remember him — in mix CDs for budding love interests and scene-canvassing memorial concerts and personal discography binges and, today, with the written word. We asked a number of musicians to discuss Smith’s influence on them, including several performers from the tribute concert in Brooklyn happening tonight. Their stories are a testament to the musical and emotional depth buried in Smith’s songwriting, so powerfully familiar it’s almost supernatural. Peruse the memories and insights of a generation permanently marked by this man’s brilliant, troubled, influential, tragic, one-of-a-kind music.

Bed Bridwell, Band Of Horses/Birdsmell

I was working as a nanny on Bainbridge Island in Washington on the day Elliott Smith died. The morning started off as any other. I woke up early, hopped on a ferry from Seattle, and met my friend and her one-year-old daughter at the Bainbridge terminal. She got on the ferry back to Seattle and I drove her car with her daughter back to their home. The radio was dialed, as always, to 90.3 KEXP. As we drove and listened, the announcement came that Elliott was gone. The young one in the back seat was oblivious to this news, but I was immediately crushed by it. Elliott’s music meant so much to me then, and does to this day. The loss of such a talented songwriter left a giant hole in the world. As a fan I had a selfish reaction, because losing him meant the absence of new Elliott Smith songs to soundtrack my daily joy and pain. I had some mutual friends of Elliott’s, and I grieved for them and for all of his loved ones. To imagine the suffering he was dealing with is beyond my comprehension. I never met Elliott, but I did grant him entry into a bar where I was working the door. Immediately starstruck, I waved him in without needing to see ID. That was enough satisfaction for me. Elliott’s songs seem so intensely personal that I really felt as if I already knew him and needed no further interaction from him. I’m so thankful to still have those songs to keep me company. Elliott will be forever missed by this world.

Sadie Dupuis, Speedy Ortiz

Finding Elliott Smith’s music as a bummed-out teen was something of a godsend; his lyrics were carefully dark, discussing depression in a way that was blatant, but more literary and sophisticated than the rest of the “sad music” to which I was then accustomed (see: early-’00s emo). His guitar playing, evocative and understated, highlighted beautiful, unexpected chord progressions, so distinctly in his own style. I became absorbed in the production techniques of his earlier albums, swooning over what I deemed “secret drums” on “2:45 AM” and the overdubbed guitar countermelody on “Last Call,” attempting to replicate them on my own four track. Even when he traded lo-fi subtlety for studio hyper-arrangement on his later albums, his songs were just as engrossing; I considered them something to aspire towards, and still do. Elliott’s death in 2003 was the first and only time I cried over the loss of someone I didn’t know personally. His music spoke to me so sincerely, and I couldn’t believe I’d never hear new songs from him.

At the end of high school, I fondly remember sitting in my car with someone who would later become my college boyfriend, listening to Either/Or on repeat from around 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. And we seriously just listened — we didn’t kiss, we barely talked, we just focused on an album that was so fully engrossing it merited seven hours of intense focus. I could spend a desert island lifetime listening to it. But luckily, Elliott was prolific, and between his life’s output, his posthumous album and compilation, and the bazillion B-sides and unreleased demos floating around on the internet, I don’t think he ever wrote a bad song. I feel lucky that, despite the early loss of such an important songwriter, he left so much timeless work behind for us all to hear.

Yoni Wolf, WHY?

I first became aware of Elliott Smith when the guy who owned Mush Records (my main label at the time) bought me Figure 8 as what he had hoped would be an influence on my impressionable work. I liked it okay but it didn’t override my addiction to Kid A, which was perpetually glued in my disc man just after the turn of the millennium. A year or so later, I went to see The Royal Tenenbaums and the scene that utilized “Needle In The Hay” floored me. I became OBSESSED with that song. I was in kind of a depressive state and that song absolutely hit the spot. I would listen to it on loop from the movie soundtrack. I liked how the chords changed in an unusual way and just how simultaneously gritty and haunting it was. As soon as I had enough dough, I went out and bought all of Elliott’s previous albums. I wore those the hell out all through that period of my life; basically while I was working on the first two WHY? albums. What a fantastically original songwriter and musician!

Marissa Nadler

Ten years ago, I remember driving around Providence, Rhode Island listening to the radio when the news of Elliott Smith’s death was announced. I had to pull over to the side of the road. I didn’t know him personally, but I felt like I did, just as I’m sure many of his listeners did. Such was the nature of his work — so specific yet so universally relatable. The profound effect of his music on my life was undeniable.

I had spent the last six or seven years up to that moment listening to him religiously. I listened to him through several painting styles and several musical styles of my own, several relationships and rotating friendships. I felt he had taught me how to play finger style guitar, sitting in surreal dream-room of my musical idols, sharing chord charts with Townes and Leonard Cohen.

Years earlier, I had seen him live for the first time at the now-defunct Avalon in Boston. The standing-room only concert was full of loud obnoxious ticket holders. Good Will Hunting had just come out and I felt I now had to share the deeply personal treasure of his music with the world. Of course, I was happy for the greater recognition he was finally receiving, but I was worried that it would be harder for him to maintain his talent for embodying fragile sensitivity while the world’s gaze was upon him. I remember thinking at the time how fragile he seemed as he delivered a gorgeous cover of “Because.”

Over the years, as I’ve stood playing in front of countless talking crowds and felt similarly too porous and too fragile to be performing in front of people at all, I remember my idols. I think of Elliott Smith and how much he meant to me. I remember that what the majority of people want from music is to feel and to be healed by sharing in the same existential human experience. I remember Elliott Smith, and “2:45 AM,” and “Between The Bars,” and “Pitseleh,” and all of the countless songs that will continue to speak to me for years to come.

Luke Temple, Here We Go Magic

Elliott Smith was important because he slid some real music in there; he hipped people to intricate melody and harmony.

While they were worshiping his torment he fed them little bits of Debussy.

I had gone through a punk rock stage and somehow landed in jazz and Elliott Smith was the guy that kind if brought it all around full circle for me. I was really turned on by the more complex harmonies in jazz and he sort of bridged the gap, he helped me to make my way back to stuff like the Beatles and Bowie.

Christopher O’Riley, NPR host and concert pianist behind Home To Oblivion: An Elliott Smith Tribute

I never got to meet Elliott. I only knew him through his music. As devotees might tell you, Elliott was his music, music was his lifeline, he was a lyric crusader for truth and a performer who sought perfection, but quietly, without shouting over the footlights. He invited you in, to hear his hard truths, he drew you in with his whisper. Every time an Elliott tune comes up shuffling, I am hearing it like the first time, hearing it like it was written yesterday. If it’s a live track, I hear not just “Division Day” for the 100th time, but the song as sung by Elliott on that day, in that state of mind, sung for that particular group of new friends. I’ve played a lot of Elliott’s songs, and continue to play them in concert, always introducing him as the most important American songwriter since Gershwin, and giving them a head’s up on the incomparable irony of the title, “True Love,” its stunningly beautiful musical tapestry undermined by perhaps Elliott’s most tragic lyric. No one has ever matched his perfect poetic sense of personal confession wrought into universal metaphor; no one offers the same intimacy; no one has ever been so quietly compelling. That’s why his music always sounds new. That’s why the music, and therefore Elliott, still lives.

Zac Little, Saintseneca

“He’s this songwriter from the ’90s. He only ate ice cream and did heroin for the last year of his life. And then he stabbed himself. Twice.”

And with these words, rattled off like sports stats, Elliott Smith first entered my consciousness.

Only moments before, my friend had purchased Elliott Smith’s self-titled CD. We stood in front of a chain store at the local mall that I was just barely old enough to drive to. He now busied himself, excitedly plucking the plastic and stickers off the blue silhouettes plunging from the tall buildings on the cover.

“I mean, his songs are really great too. You should check it out.”

It’s probably not fair that this should color how I hear his music.

But, like reading the final chapter of a Greek tragedy first, I’ve only heard it with both beginning and end in mind.

“Elliott Smith once played a house show in Columbus.”

It’s a legend I’ve often heard repeated. I’ve even seen the picture. He’s hunched over a guitar, siting on a PA speaker, all these ’90s punk kids sitting on the floor.

I missed out on that Elliott Smith. Mine is a vinyl re-issue, a YouTube ghost.

I inherited the myth.

Then, one fall day, with the fragile melodies of Either/Or cranked over the hum of an overburdened station wagon, I saw the light.

It was white light.

Every color visible to the eye was in there, though you could only perceive one.

In some quantum sense, I think every song that has ever existed in past, present and future is contained within a single note, with room to spare.

I got that from him.

At the end of “Say Yes” you can hear the orchestras he was conjuring, singing “See how it is…” employing the emptiness.

I know he was a Beatles fan, and the closure to that record is no less deafening than Sgt. Pepper’s.

With those two notes, he summons the cacophonous punctuation that ends John Lennon’s day in “A Day In The Life.”

And finally that ecstatic resolve, all ten hands and three pianos worth.

//

Press play on our playlist of the 10 best Elliott Smith songs below.

Comments (14)
  1. I got into Elliott the same way so many do, through The Royal Tenenbaums, but I was pretty immediately hooked after buying XO. I didn’t fully take in the tragedy of his death at the time, but I do remember almost wishing that it had been murder. The idea of someone essentially putting his own sadness out there for all to see made me feel like I had a kindred spirit, and the idea that it was too much for him makes me fear for myself.

    I remember purchasing From a Basement on a Hill. It feels totally overproduced to me, but there are two moments that devastate me. The first is the last verse of “Fond Farewell”:

    The cold comfort of the in-between
    A little less than a human being
    A little less than a happy high
    A little less than a suicide
    The only things that you really tried

    And then, near the end of “King’s Crossing” when he pleads “Give me one good reason not to do it.” And that voice in the background says “Because we love you.”

    Fuck, I’m gonna cry. Thanks for the wonderful piece.

  2. Two of the first more “mature” artists I got into when I was a music ignoramus in high school shared the same name (The Smiths and Elliott Smith.) I was at that point where I began raiding my older brother’s CD collection for different sounds since my peers were of no help, as they indulged in bad rap, bad nu-metal or Darude “Sandstorm”-type music (which I suppose preceded this EDM fiasco today’s youth has muddled themselves into…) I was also a tremendously emo young man — innocent school boy crushes unfettered by the needs for lustful sex and blowjobs and having not yet discovered masturbation, a purely romantic and naive perspective of love. But Elliott was boozy, women were disastrous and when the presumed “nice” girls I turned my attention toward took a liking for the young men whose first date end-game was up-the-shirt, reality began to settle in that the days of “Boys Meets World” romance was behind me.

    Despite the revelation to me that relationships were imperfect and that bad things could come of them more often than not to the most naive of us, I suppose I never gave up on the possibility of pure romance as the day Elliott passed away, I remember breaking the news to my junior year / first semester schoolboy crush in News Writing class. How fitting! She had this beautiful head of thick, full and long brown hair with an impeccable taste in fashion. We barely talked, as I am severely shy with women but I am glad I was able to romanticize such a sad day in music in that way.

    I believe she ended up marrying the percussionist from Aloha / Passion Pit.

  3. This was a really fantastic piece.

  4. Thank you for this article. Elliott’s music made you feel like you were allowed to know every side of him – it was never inauthentic, just so humanly true. It’s difficult for me to think of musicians who still speak to you this way. Colorado recently had a screening of the documentary “Searching for Elliott Smith” and local musicians covered a few of his songs – here’s a link
    https://soundcloud.com/sacredchaoproductions

  5. What an incredible artist. The Nick Drake of our day and I would argue Elliot was even better. You are missed brother.

  6. Missed him play at disastrous Field Day Music Fest in 2003, in what was surely one of his final live performances, because my ride ended up having to go into work for a few hours. Still one of the biggest (music-related) regrets of my life. What a phenomenal talent – every single one of his songs is so scarily personal but so perfectly universal it almost seems impossible. I’m certain that within the next decade he’ll be recognized, rightly so, as one of the great American songwriters of all time.

    What makes me sad about his death (other than death/suicide in general) is that listening to his deeply personal confessionals and exploring his dark thoughts – thoughts that led to his suicide – usually makes me feel better. His gift for expressing often contradictory human emotions (nostalgia, hope, sadness, regret, joy, usually at the same time) was so unique and profound. It’s hard to imagine another musician like him coming along, so my sadness for him after his death was always pretty selfish.

  7. Whenever I’m bored with my guitar, just strumming the same dull bar chords, unsatisfied with the sound, angry at my fingers for not finding something more interesting or reflective of myself or just pretty to the ear, I pull up an old Elliott Smith song I haven’t played for a while and I remember, “oh, that’s right, this thing is endless…..”

    I can’t speak to him enough as a musician. The songs he wrote breached the walls of music. Some of his songs sound like math problems his scratched out in the middle of the night and mapped on the frets of a guitar. Honestly, what are these tunings? Where did he even get this chord? What a genius.

    • I’ve driven myself to near insanity, I feel, trying to play Tomorrow Tomorrow like Elliott.

    • Couldn’t agree more. It seemed so effortless. It’s like he just woke up one morning and started playing “Somebody That I Used To Know” like it’s no big deal. While he inspired you to play, he did the opposite for me. I instantly hated everything I wrote after listening to any of his songs. I knew I was never meant to write music – and I’m fine with that. I enjoy music a lot more now that I’m just a fan, and I have people like Elliott Smith to thank. “Talent” isn’t even the right word to use for him. It’s something else. It’s probably just as you put it: genius.

  8. Oh whoa, I didn’t even realize the anniversary was coming up. I’ve been listening to him a lot lately, as it’s really great music for the colder months when all the leaves are changing colors, and the first snowfalls blanket the ground (also, among other reasons which I’ll spare you all).

    I really forgot how amazing of a songwriter he was though. I’ve had New Moon playing in my car nonstop for the past week and a half or so. I cant say there’s a single bad song on that album, and all of those are unreleased tracks or B-Sides.

    His guitar playing just absolutely baffles me sometimes. I’m always convinced there’s a bunch of overdubbing going on, but in reality there really isn’t a whole lot. All those licks to fill in spaces between chords where there could be nothing at all, hammer ons and pull offs, and like Skow said, all those crazy chords that for some reason I had no knowledge that they existed.

    I wish I could thank Elliott for the multiple times he’s helped me while getting through tough times, when I’ve had to deal with heartbreak, depression, or just extreme loneliness. Having that musician whose songs you can relate to, there for you whenever you need them is really special. It’s like having that friend you can tell your troubles to, but instead you don’t have to say a single thing. Elliott knew what you’re going through, and you can really easily relate those songs to whatever situation you’ve been in or are dealing with. Listening to one of his albums is a form of therapy in the most beautiful way possible.

  9. Thanks for this, Chris. It’s comforting being surrounded (in an internet sense) by people who are just as passionate, or more so, about Elliott. Everyone has a unique yet somehow similar connection with him and his music. It’s a connection that very few artists can really achieve, and one of the reasons that makes Elliot so special to so many people.

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