On August 6, 1969, revered songwriter Elliott Smith was born in Omaha, Nebraska. On October 21, 2003, Smith died from alleged self-inflicted stab wounds to the chest. This month, Smith’s former label Kill Rock Stars is celebrating what would have been Smith’s 43rd birthday and presenting Smith’s music in new and meaningful ways, releasing never-heard-before tracks and reissuing Smith’s self-titled and Either/Or LPs.
When we lose the people who inspire us the most, it seems mandatory to continue to share their lives and influence with others. Today, Smith’s music remains a powerfully beautiful and relevant form of expression that universally connects us all.
To partake in what Kill Rock Stars has deemed “Elliott Smith Month,” THE BOMBER JACKET writers have listed the Elliott Smith songs they love most. We’ve also featured a couple guest entries from musicians who also appreciate Smith’s discography. To listen the songs, you can click on the hyperlinked titles.
Following the “favorite track” section, we have a streamable cover of “King’s Crossing” that hasn’t circulated the Internet enough yet, and we also have videos of other Elliott Smith covers and songs inspired by the musician’s life and work.
“Talking to Mary, you know you don’t have to shout / She can hear what you’re thinking, like you were saying it right out loud.” This Elliott Smith track doesn’t jump out like others do. It kind of sits back and lets the listener slowly love it, talking about a “Mary” who is too sweet and gentle to hold on to, and who will eventually realize that you’re not “good” enough. And she will leave you. And if you don’t believe her, Elliott Smith will tell you in a doleful refrain and a zig-zag guitar part that will tear you apart. The song, as straightforward as it seems, is deceiving in its perspectives. There’s the “you,” the “Mary,” and the “me.” The “me” seems to analyze the situation and determine that Mary is going to leave the “you”. But then at the end, there’s the final, “It’s no problem, I’ll just keep quiet, if it’s easier for you to make believe then that I don’t love you as much as I do.” And it seems like Elliott is actually confronting himself. Who knows what the actual intention was. The important thing is that the listener can relate to all three perspectives in the song, all because of Smith’s lyrical brilliance.
Though I have many Smith songs that are my “favorites,” this one has to be at the top. I came across this song after the most difficult breakup I’ve ever had, and couldn’t believe how appropriate it felt, how it seemed to describe so perfectly what I had just went through. It made a few tears jump out of my eyes when I first heard it, and still does from time to time. The best songs are ones that are specific enough that we feel we’re hearing something original, heartfelt and unique, yet vague enough that we can bring our own meanings to them, so that they become personal. Elliott Smith’s great gift was being able to share his pain with all of us, open his heart and let us know that he was hurting worse than we were…he created hauntingly beautiful melodies to accompany heartbreaking vocals, allowing us to safely feel the hurt and pain in our souls without letting it overwhelm us. In my darkest time, I listened to this song and felt for once that someone else out there could understand exactly what I was feeling. It’s sad to think about how Elliott Smith could bring so many people back from the abyss of sorrow, but he never seemed to be able to do so for himself.
The first Elliott Smith song I heard is my favorite specifically because of a first love. A girl I had been romantically interested in burned me a mix CD with the song “Somebody That I Used to Know.” My first impression wasn’t good simply because the song hurt. This particular girl and I had recently gone through somewhat of a falling out and this song was brutal. You know the feeling, right? When someone makes you a music mix that is a message and it isn’t a nice message?
It took me a while to warm up to the song, but thankfully as I’ve grown older, the pain of a first heartbreak dulls and so does the pain of the song. If anything, I identify even more with the song than I ever did; it’s amazing how someone you thought you could never live without isn’t even important in the present. I’ve always thought that was the most horrible and interesting thing about life–how we are capable of bringing joy to someone and sharing a message that changes their life…but we can also be ignored and powerless to do anything about it. I can never really decide which reality is harder to bear…probably because it’s both.
There are a lot of complicated and confusing parts to the personality in Smith’s music. There’s his trouble with letting people get close to him as heard on “Alameda.” Or dealing with popularity and Oscar nominations and the internal anguish of putting one tune in a hit movie (evident all over Either/Or). There’s strange familial problems on Roman Candle that have something to do with abuse and abandonment. Meditations on suicide are splattered in From a Basement on the Hill. However, he also has plenty of Beatles-rivaling and uplifting pop hooks and melodies that have more lyrical sweetness just because they’re so honest, like “Say Yes” (Either/Or). “Angel in the Snow” captures all the youthful simplicity of “Thirteen” (both from New Moon), but with the addition of the freezing social anxiety that comes with loving someone from a distance. Of course, there’s an interpretation that relates to another complex part of Smith, which is flirtations with drugs. Being “crushed out” into the same fine white powder that he falls into, spun out and frozen with his white lady angel. But, I prefer to think of him as a dude with an enflamed inner child that just couldn’t make a move on the girl lying in the snow next to him.
Elliott Smith was consistently great, but consistency can be both blessing and curse. Nothing quite trumps that initial thrill you feel the first time you hear that voice, that song, that record. Yet some songs are so blindsiding that whenever we hear them, it feels like first time all over again. Perhaps they’re timeless or maybe we’re still awestruck, years later. Smith has several songs like that–“Between the Bars” and “See You Later” come to mind–but for my money, nothing matches “Sweet Adeline” for sheer power. Above all, the chorus is, I think, the single-most unexpected and shocking moment in all of Smith’s music. Bruce Springsteen once described the snare-shot at the top of Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” as feeling like it kicked open the door to your mind, and that’s definitely part of what Smith’s doing in “Sweet Adeline.” But there’s something scarier, too, in light of the lyrical allusions to depression and heroin. That high-fidelity moment at the 1:33 mark feels like being hit with light for the first time in weeks. Smith composed many bleak portraits in his songs, but none more curt, complete and disquieting than this.
“Speed Trials” opens with a jarring noise: a click and a thump followed by a gentle hiss. The decision to leave this naked artifact of the recording process sets the atmosphere of painful intimacy the rest of the song reinforces. The sparse arrangement–Smith’s quietly-played, clean electric guitar, minimal, ringing drums, and doubled-up vocals whispered as much as sung–draws us into a bleak but inexplicably attractive morass. There’s action here too: the drums are propulsive, the guitar’s rhythmic downstroke is relentless, the consonants are forced into our ears with an exhausted anger, like Smith is using his last breath to hiss and spit out one final beautiful curse (“…you’re suCH a PPPPinball…speeeeeeeeeeeeeeeed triiiiaaaaaaaaalllllsss…”). This track gets us close enough to the artist to give us an idea of what it might have been like to experience great tension between being so utterly closed in a private world of addiction and beauty and yet so outwardly talented as a poet and musician. In this respect it is perhaps uniquely well-suited among the tracks on Either/Or as a reflection of the ideas in Kierkegaard’s “Either/Or,” which can be read as a schizophrenic and hedonistic war of choice inside Kierkegaard between rival philosophies of living.
–Chad R. Matheny
This song isn’t one of my all-time favorite Elliott Smith tracks, but it is my current favorite. I’ve had a pretty difficult last year and I’ve had many moments where I’ve just had to swallow whatever I was dealing with and push forward–usually having to outwardly appear like nothing ever happened. It often felt alien and inhuman. But there was one time this summer when I was biking home from work late at night through Brooklyn and this song came on my MP3 player…everything washed over me in a rush of lyrical intensity and I felt okay. The bright opening riff and upbeat melody backing the sarcastic and frustrated lyrics. The line “Everything’s alright, except for how it seems.” Elliott was talking about how shitty things were, but he was singing with an optimistic voice and playing a cheerful guitar melody. I thought, “Okay. That’s it. I need to brighten up. It’s okay. It’s not that bad.” Since then, I’ve played the song each morning on my bike ride to work. It makes me smile and pick up the pieces–it makes me try a little harder.
Every year in June, Portland, Oregon kicks off Rose Festival season with the Starlight Parade, a celebration of local talent and culture. (Kind of like the “Celebration of Specialness” from David Byrne’s “True Stories,” except on wheels.) I happened to be visiting Portland on the night that the parade was held this year, so I wandered down to Broadway, ordered a hot chocolate at a nearby coffee shop, and hummed “Rose Parade” while I waited for the festivities to begin. No one was shouting or throwing candy, and I didn’t trip over any of the dogs in the audience, but like Smith, I couldn’t help but feel like I was somewhere I didn’t belong, intruding on someone else’s celebration. After an hour of watching marching bands, I grew tired and retreated to my hotel. The next morning, I made a pilgrimage to Jackpot Records to buy some music by local bands. Incidentally, “Rose Parade” was playing while I browsed through the CDs–but this time, I felt completely at ease, and found myself singing along to Smith’s “half-hearted victory song.”
As mentioned at the start of the article, the following is a cover of “Kings Crossing” that a musician friend of ours, Allison Francis, recorded back in 2008. It’s a beautiful cover that hasn’t really been heard yet, so we wanted to share it:
For more Elliott Smith covers and Smith-influenced songs, check out these picks:
“Late” (original song) by Ben Folds
“It Just Is” (original song) by Rilo Kiley
“Raytracer” (original song) by Emperor X
“Don’t Jock the Dead” (original song) by Factor
“Stupidity Tries” Elliott smith cover by Cymbals Eat Guitars
“Between the Bars” Elliott Smith cover by Metric
“Between the Bars” Elliott Smith cover by Kevin Devine
“Angeles” Elliott Smith cover by Seth Avett
“The Biggest Lie” Elliott Smith cover by Bright Eyes