Elliott Smith has slipped back into the forefront of music fans’ minds the past week with the release of an exclusive Record Store Day 7” including alternate versions of some beloved songs such as the enigmatic “Punch and Judy” and the gut-wrenching “Angeles”.
I was unfortunate enough to come upon Smith’s music years after his passing and whenever I play emotionally resonant, ever-affecting records, I find his loss an underrated one, one that the whole world didn’t share, but those who know his music can still feel lacking today. His capabilities linger in the air, as seen through posthumous releases like “New Moon” and “From a Basement on a Hill”; there was more there, and there is no closure with his fans. In a sense, this makes his songs – with themes of broken hearts, despair, suicide, and aimlessness – seem even more haunting and dark.
With a huge catalogue of unforgettable gems, both released and unreleased, it seems an overwhelming task to narrow down ten favourites. At the very least though, if you’re unfamiliar with Smith’s catalogue and you come across my blog and are intrigued, you can’t go wrong either way.
10. Miss Misery
The song that put Elliott Smith on the map, “Miss Misery” is an obvious choice to round out my top 10, for all good reasons: the song’s melody are perfect; the tone of his vocals and the pain behind the lyrics is spot on; the instrumental swell following the intricately crafted bridge adds an extra-textual layer to a song that garnered Smith an Oscar nod and a very understated, unforgettable Oscar performance – one that could never hope to be duplicated. It’s simple and classic and among Smith’s strongest songs ever.
9. Whatever (Folk Song in C)
Reading literature on Elliott Smith, it is apparent that despite his wavering confidence indicated in his songs, that he was fully aware of how good he was as an artist. “Whatever” is indicative of Smith’s ability to combine dark, angst-y subject matter with lighthearted self-deprecation with a gentle acoustic folk-pop song that implies unsettling desperation with a sad smile intact.
8. Independence Day
Elliott Smith’s material often ventures into dark territory, focusing on death, existentialism, and of course, heartbreak. “Independence Day” is a song about death that seems to be a poetic allusion to Virginia Woolf’s “The Death of the Moth”, and is eerily self-prophetic as Smith sings to a butterfly, remarking: “You only live a day/but it’s brilliant anyway” and has an epiphany: “Once I was you”.
7. Son of Sam
In true Elliott Smith style, this song is not at all a literal tale of the real-life Son of Sam. Yet, the namesake of the infamous serial killer lends a real sinister tone to this track which otherwise would be about the waywardness of youth and self reflection about one’s own failures. The song has a beautiful, intimate accompanying video crafted by photographer Autumn DeWilde. Ten years later, it’s still a bit unsettling to see video footage of Elliott Smith, especially when it’s so blithe and endearing.
I love this song. Because I’m a terribly self-centred blogger, I can’t even write about the ‘bigger picture’ of a song like “Happiness” because my personal feelings about the subject of the song will only get in the way. The fact is, when I’ve had breakups, falling-outs with friends, when I’m angry at or upset with the people in my life, when I feel sort for myself, this song is what I choose to throw on every time. When Elliott sings: “…Her memory worked in reverse/To keep her safe from herself” I’m told more about my life and myself than I could ever know on my own.
5. Between the Bars
To me, the emotion behind “Between the Bars” and fans’ fervent love of Elliott Smith are inextricably linked; perhaps because this song is a fan favourite in itself, and one of Elliott’s most well-regarded, well-known songs, and perhaps also because of its appearance in the short film, “Lucky Three” there’s something that runs deep with Elliott’s listeners, myself included. The track itself is an utter lo-fi folk/rock masterpiece, telling a full story with one swift 3-minute motion. It’s been covered a few times and thus, continues to be immortalized again and again.
4. I Didn’t Understand
Smith loved the Beatles, covering Beatles and ex-Beatles solo songs numerous times at his live shows. “I Didn’t Understand” is a baroque, Beatles-esque song, layering rich, perfect harmonies with a polished, clean sparseness and disparaging lyrics that are so soft and beautiful, they add meaning to the line, “What a fucking joke” which seems so embittered it’s almost out of place. Simple and straightforward, this is perhaps the most unforgettable album-closing track ever.
3. Waltz #2
Of all the great tracks on the essential XO is the one fight song of the record, the raucous, bitter-as-hell “Waltz # 2” which is a wailing, angry fuck-you breakup song and one of the catchiest and edgiest song in Smith’s whole catalogue. There’s nothing quite like the line: “Here it is, the revenge to the tune: You’re no good”. It is a pointed attempt at telling a story exactly how it’s meant to be told when someone is at their angriest: a hateful statement with nothing left on the table. This song has allusions to suicide (“I’m here today and expected to stay on and on and on/I’m tired”) and depression (“XO, Mom/It’s okay, it’s alright/Nothing’s wrong”) adding to the present, chaotic emotions that are hurled with each spiteful word.
The intro of “Angeles” is a thickly-lain acoustic pick-a-thon that makes you question why only the good die young. Elliott Smith’s amazing songwriting abilities usually overshadow his skills as a musician – on both piano and acoustic guitar, Smith is a veritable God. “Angeles” is a showcase of all of his best tricks combined into one of the most depressing yet resonant, beautiful songs ever, not just in his, but any catalogue.
“Haven’t laughed this hard in a long time/Better stop now before I start crying”. These are the words that for me, made the world stop momentarily. Walking home on a warm spring night in the dark while the last of the melting snow was mere black puddles in storm drains, when the only light came from the dull glow of street lamps illuminating the roadway like a beacon as I approached the end of the winter semester of my sophomore year. This was the first Elliott Smith song I ever truly came to know, and I’ve never forgotten the first time I heard it. It was as if stars aligned and the world made sense but the world that made sense in that moment was a sad shell of any of the lies in which it was previously shrouded. I went home after hearing this song, and wrote a short story which garnered me a $2500 scholarship in my following year.