Elliott Smith was a unique musician that created amazing and influential music throughout his entire life. Even as a young teenager, he wrote songs that later became admired works of art. His music, although often simple and quiet, is exceptionally beautiful. Unfortunately, he lived a rough life, having struggled with being abused as a child and with drug addiction and alcoholism as a teenager and an adult. Being such a kind soul, it is unfortunate that he passed away at a young age. However, he will always be remembered for his music that millions of fans love. The world was unbearable for Elliott, but for many, the music he left us helps make the world a little more bearable. Taking a look back on his life and music is important to understanding what is so special about him.
Elliott Smith was born on August 6, 1969. When he was only six months old, his parents divorced each other and he stayed with his mother in Duncanville, Texas, while his father moved to Portland, Oregon. As a young teenager, Elliott began to record music. In his biography of Elliott Smith, S. R. Shutt quoted Elliott saying, “I’ve done it [recording] since I was 14 or so, hours and hours of unmarked blank tapes. … I borrowed [a four-track] for a really long time” (Shutt 3). After attending college, Elliott began recording music as a singer/songwriter. From then on, he continued to create what was the most important music of his life.
Throughout Elliott’s life as a songwriter, his music progressed and evolved. I love all of the different periods of his songwriting for their own unique qualities. Even on his first album, Roman Candle, there are distinct characteristics that set it apart from anything else Elliott wrote. Having recorded it with an old four-track recorder in a basement, the songs have a lo-fi sound that give them a very emotional and raw feeling. The most important song to me on that album is “Condor Ave”, as it is a masterpiece lyrically and instrumentally that he wrote when we was only 17. The song shows his painful but powerful storytelling abilities as he sings about a lover driving away to leave him forever. He begins the song with the lyrics, “She took the Oldsmobile out past condor avenue/And she locked the car and slipped past/Into rhythmic quietude/Lights burning/Voice dry and hoarse/I threw the screen door like a bastard back and forth/The chimes fell over each other/I fell onto my knees/The sound of the car driving off made me feel diseased.” These words paint a vivid picture of him and a woman fighting, losing their voices from yelling, and slamming doors in anger. When the woman finally drives off to leave him, Elliott describes the sound as making him feel “diseased”, which shows his absolute dread and disgust at that moment. However, he sings this all while finger picking a sweet melody on his guitar that almost lightens the mood of the song. The combination of the sublime vocals and the light guitar playing makes it one of Elliott’s prettiest and saddest songs. It also provides a glimpse of the potential he would go on to reach later because it shows how effortlessly he can craft and play songs that are actually very deep and complicated. Below is the original recording of “Condor Ave”.
Elliott’s later work showed his development as a songwriter. More instrumentation was used in his songs, and multiple acoustic guitars often played simultaneously to create wonderful melodies. Even on the songs still stripped down to just Elliott with his guitar, his sound was so unique that it couldn’t be replicated. For instance, the quiet and seemingly simple melody on the song, “Between The Bars” on his album, Either/Or, could never have been written by anyone else. It’s actually one of his more simple songs, but all of its little parts together create a hauntingly beautiful song. The way he combines strumming with finger-picking on his guitar in the chorus, while singing the lyrics, “People you’ve been before that you\Don’t want around anymore\That push and shove and won’t bend to your will\I’ll keep them still”, creates this feeling of hope despite all that’s wrong in his life. I interpret this as someone helping a friend struggling to turn their life around and start making positive changes. While this person may or may not be able to overcome the challenges, he or she is hopeful. It is songs like this that show Elliott’s simple and effortless beauty.
As for his songs with more instrumentation, Elliott was free to explore the many different additions he could make. He experimented with instruments such as drums, electric guitar, piano, organ, and violin. Often these songs would be on the more upbeat side. “Miss Misery” is a great example of Elliott’s use electric guitars, drums, and vocal harmonization. It’s one of Elliott’s catchiest pop songs and also one of his most famous. It contains everything that makes his songs unique, from the soothing singing to the gorgeous and even sometimes unexpected chord progressions that are very characteristic of Elliott. Below is the studio recording of “Miss Misery”.
Alcohol and drug addiction was a significant problem for Elliott and these issues often came up in his lyrics. He was often labeled as depressing even though there were hints of hope and humor in his lyrics. For instance, in the song “Say Yes” on his album Either/Or, he sings, “But now I feel changed around and instead of falling down I’m standing up the morning after.” In an interview, Elliott discussed his lyrics saying, “I’m not ‘so sad’. There has to be a certain amount of darkness in my songs for the happiness to matter” (NME 1). His singing is almost never loud and is sometimes as quiet as a whisper. At times it is so personal sounding that it can cause chills.
Regardless of the lyrics, sad or not, Elliott’s songwriting has had a great influence on my own writing. When I try to write powerful or meaningful lyrics, I usually struggle and don’t get it right at all. However, I feel like there is a lot I can learn from Elliott. His poetic writing and story telling skills were very powerful, and reading his lyrics has helped me learn how to develop my own ideas. However, his guitar playing has had the greatest influence on me. A lot of my guitar playing is based off finger picking and strumming similar to Elliott’s style. His song, “Angeles”, is one of my favorite songs to learn and practice finger picking with. It is especially difficult to play and it shows his skill and creativity as a guitarist. The speed at which he finger picks and strums on it is very impressive. It can be very hard to keep up with the guitar, and trying to do so while singing the lyrics only increases my appreciation of his skill. The picking pattern is complicated as it is filled with hammer-ons and pull-offs and intricate patterns within the main pattern. It’s fantastic to watch him play it to see how he sings, finger picks, and strums, all at once to create a breathtaking song. Below is a video of Elliott playing “Angeles” live.
Although Elliott Smith’s story is heartbreaking, he has been an important part of many peoples’ lives including mine. He has helped people struggling with depression and addictions solely through his songwriting and his kindness. For others, he has even just strengthened their love of music. Whatever purpose his music serves for a particular person, it will live on forever and continue to touch the lives of all his fans. To conclude, here is my personal favorite song of Elliott’s, “Come to Me”, a rarity recorded live in 1996.
Interviews and Articles
Ankeny, Jason. “Elliott Smith on AllMusic.” AllMusic. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Apr. 2013.
“Elliott Smith Archive Interview – ‘There Has To Be Darkness In My Songs'” NME.COM. N.p., 26 Oct. 2010. Web. 15 Apr. 2013.
Shutt, S. R. “Sweet Adeline | the Official Elliott Smith Site – by Fans.” Sweet Adeline. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Apr. 2013.
Condor Ave – Elliott Smith. Perf. Elliott Smith. YouTube. YouTube, 28 Nov. 2007. Web. 15 Apr. 2013.
Elliott Smith: “Angeles” Perf. Elliott Smith. YouTube. YouTube, 03 Sept. 2008. Web. 15 Apr. 2013.
Elliott Smith – Come to Me. Perf. Elliott Smith. YouTube. YouTube, 18 Apr. 2011. Web. 15 Apr. 2013.
Elliott Smith – Miss Misery. Perf. Elliott Smith. YouTube. YouTube, 18 May 2008. Web. 15 Apr. 2013.
TwentyFourBit. Elliott Smith. http://www.twentyfourbit.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/elliott-ill-be-back.jpg