Elliott Smith

Elliott Smith’s rarities album, New Moon, has just come out, and I’ve been playing it for about a week, thinking about all his records and how to write about them. His death knocked the wind out of me. I got into Nirvana when Kurt Cobain was already dead, so I only grieved for him in a vague, abstract way. With Smith, on the other hand, although I didn’t have any personal grief, I did feel some unusually acute need to go back to the trail of songs and make sense out of them.

Every one of his songs is an elegy. They have precedents — John Lennon, Nick Drake, certain moods of Dylan’s, writers like the Beats and Bukowski — but they also inhabit a world of their own. There are songs about romantic failures, in which Smith blames himself for pushing a woman away, or hurting her, and wrecking his chance to escape to a place of redemption:

You had plans, for both of us
That involved, a trip out of town
To a place I’d seen, in a magazine
That you left lying around
(“Miss Misery”)

You once talked to me about love
And you painted pictures of
A never-never land
And I could have gone to that place
But I didn’t understand
(“I Didn’t Understand”)

The other dynamic in his songs, one that ultimately has more range and more sorrow and more angles, is what to do about people fucking up. Part of Smith longs to stay there with them, lap for lap, drink for drink, providing them with compassion and comfort.

Drink up baby, look at the stars
I’ll kiss you again between the bars
Where I’m seeing you there with your hands in the air
Waiting to finally be caught
(“Between the Bars”)

But the darker side of this is obvious to him; in one song, he talks about wrapping his “poison arms” around his lover. Not only is he complicit with them, and likewise imprisoned, but he’s actually helping render her or him more passive:

Do what I say and I’ll make you OK
And drive them away
The images stuck in your head

The people you you’ve been before
That you don’t want around around anymore
That push and shove and won’t bend to your will
I’ll keep them still

Not that this sort of power is any lasting prize; the person wastes and wastes away until they become remote again in death. Smith gets disgusted, and a lot of his songs have a sharp tone of moral judgement:

Baby Britain feels the best
Floating over a sea of vodka
Separated from the rest
Fights problems with bigger problems…
For someone half as smart
You’d be a work of art
You put yourself apart
And I can’t help until you start
(“Baby Britain”)

Then Smith stops short. He catches himself using the same kind of conditional, foreshortened language you find in self-help books and twelve-step programs. He realizes that he’s actually pulling away: if you’re going to try to get better, fine, but otherwise I can’t be around you. That makes him exactly like the guy in “No Name #2” (it’s fitting that Smith uses the personal form of “Untitled”) who just lets a suicide happen:

A couple of words that hid a crime
“You’re just fine
You’ll be just fine
But I’m on the other line”

In the song, Smith makes the guy remember by physically attacking him. Anyway, he knows people who have come clean, gone straight. They’re still bled, only they’re “bled white.” They end up just as dead:

That’s the man she’s married to now
That’s the girl that he takes around town

She appears composed, so she is, I suppose
Who can really tell?
She shows no emotion at all
Stares into space like a dead china doll…
XO, Mom
It’s okay, it’s alright, nothing’s wrong
(“Waltz #2”)

Smith’s most astonishing songs live out this contradiction so fully that the one thing becomes the other thing. In songs like “Easy Way Out,” it’s impossible to tell whether the easy way out is being good, or falling down. In “Angeles,” which happens over the course of a day at the races, winning and losing get confused. In “Independence Day,” the Fourth of July is literally everything: mindless patriotism and optimism, independence, death, rapture, transformation, and, most of all, connection to another person:

I saw you at the 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


Over at Irrelevant Narcissism, Brandon has a brilliant new post on Gray’s Anatomy in which he describes the program’s strange overlapping of romantic soap opera with the medical ethic of care. You can say this much about Elliott Smith’s unsolved music: it lays bare the devastating core of caring.

You say you mean well, you don’t know what you mean
Fucking oughta stay the hell away from things you know nothing about

I haven’t talked about the music yet. As most people know, Smith moved from playing mainly whisper-quiet, acoustic songs, to recording albums that mixed those songs with swelling, symphonic pop. Towards the end of his life, he started to write himself into every part of his passion play: he became the dying junkie and the big, indifferent success, both at the same time. He also started to inhabit his dreams, in part because he was playing anew with romancing heroin. Acoustic songs like “Memory Lane” and “Let’s Get Lost” had him actually escaping to a sort of paradise with his lover, like John Murdoch finally standing on the shores of Shell Beach. (This was all conscious: Smith also wrote a song called “A Distorted Reality Is Now A Necessity To Be Free.”)

As for the other songs, it’s impossible to know exactly what significance the crescendo had for Elliott Smith, but maybe part of it was an attempt to write something other than an elegy. Through the force and accumulation of instruments and sound, he stretches out the moment a little longer, endures longer without one person or the other disappearing — through misery or moralism — into themselves. To go anywhere, for him, was to go toward death. To hear his records, you have to watch with him a little while. You have to stay.

And everybody’s gone at last
Well, I hope you’re not waiting
Waiting around for me
Because I’m not going anywhere