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Elliott Smith: Top 10 Songs, 10 Years Later

on October 21, 2013, 2:00pm
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By Soheil Rezayazdi

If you’re reading this, it’s possible you remember October 21, 2003, like I do, as something of an emotional flashpoint. Elliott Smith fans felt his death with the effect of blunt-force trauma. We spent that fall in mourning for a man most of us had never met. We soaked in his music and read every last obit. We burrowed in message boards with likeminded fans. Our friends offered condolences as though a family member had died. We came to terms with a simple truth: For us, Elliott Smith occupied a space that no other musician could ever fill.

Ten years later, the songs have lost little of their power. This list attempts to capture what made that awkward man in the white suit so essential to so many. I’ve consulted his entire body of work here: album tracks, B-sides, unreleased recordings, and songs from his days in Heatmiser. Steven Paul (“Elliott”) Smith wrote unassuming little songs of profound impact to people like me. He would have turned 44 this August. Consider this list a celebration of the man and his work.

10. A Fond Farewell

Album: From a Basement on the Hill (2004)

Elliott had a fascination with hard drugs long before he became a user himself. By most accounts, those infamous early tracks like “Needle in the Hay” reflected an interest in dramatic storytelling, not a history of drug use. But things changed by the time he recorded “A Fond Farewell”. Here, Elliott sings deeply unsettling lines like “Veins full of disappearing ink/ Vomiting in the kitchen sink” in his signature nonchalant style. Elliott could explore the ghastliest subjects without a hint of histrionics. The lyrics suggest a recovering addict who, now clean, relapses in a moment of weakness. “This is not my life,” he pleads. “It’s just a fond farewell to a friend.” Anyone caught backsliding on a bad habit, I’m sure, can relate. “A Fond Farewell” ranks among Elliott’s most heartbreaking songs for, of all things, its inherent optimism. It did sound like Elliott was saying goodbye to heroin in 2003. He got clean, he did a few shows, and he began talks of an ambitious double album. But it didn’t work out that way. The fond farewell, it turned out, was to us.

09. Plainclothes Man

Album: Mic City Sons (1996)

Before Good Will Hunting turned him into an Oscar nominee and a film soundtrack staple – see: The Royal TenenbaumsAmerican BeautyThe Girl Next DoorKeeping the Faith – Elliott had released three records with Heatmiser, an emo-tinged grunge outfit out of Portland. Aggression and self-pity dominated the group’s first records. Elliott penned songs with names like “Bastard John” and “Busted Lip”, and he sang them like a man who’d screamed himself hoarse the night before. Mic City Sons, the group’s last album, eschewed the angst to offer a prologue to the sound that Elliott would soon master. Take “Plainclothes Man”, a song that could have easily camouflaged its way onto Elliott’s best solo records. An unabashed slice of college radio indie rock, “Plainclothes Man” finds Elliott exploring his key obsessions: alcoholism, his stepfather, and broken relationships. The song defies an easy reading, like most on this list, but Elliott peppers his musings with such memorable, concrete quips. The strong melodic hooks and lyrical abstractions are an early sign of Elliott as a maestro of melancholic pop.

08. Sweet Adeline

 Album: XO (1998)

“Sweet Adeline” is a sonic statement of purpose. The opener off Elliott’s XO, the song marks a clear dividing line between the man’s early, homemade records and his later, studio-centric sound. Hell, you can hear that shift in the song itself. “Sweet Adeline” begins very much in line with Elliott’s first records: a frail voice whispers ominous nothings over sparse acoustic guitars. And then, something strange happens: A light bulb flickers inside a dark room, revealing a trove of previously unseen treasures. That’s “Sweet Adeline”. For 90 seconds, Elliott teases us with his beloved sound, only to upend the track into an orchestral blast of chamber pop (a neat trick Sufjan Stevens would steal, to great effect, on the first two tracks off The Age of Adz). In interviews, Elliott expressed a desire to “kick the door open” with an opening salvo that let people know that “this was not an acoustic record.” Mission accomplished. Elliott set dynamite to the sound he’d spent three records perfecting, and he delivers one of the most hair-raising moments of his discography in the process.

07. A Distorted Reality Is Now a Necessity to Be Free

Album: “Pretty (Ugly Before)” B-side

Elliott fans waited three long years for new material after the release of Figure 8. Our dry spell ended in 2003 with “Pretty (Ugly Before)”, a rollicking single and the final release of Elliott’s life. The real revelation here, however, was the B-side: “A Distorted Reality Is Now a Necessity to Be Free”. The track finds Elliott adapting his low-fi sound into woozy psychedelic pop. After years of guitar-led balladry and power pop, this claustrophobic stoner dirge came as a total change-up in 2003. And yet, can you imagine a more seamless stylistic transition for Elliott Smith? “A Distorted Reality” still sounds like it could have been recorded in your bedroom. The whispered intimacy and warm melodies remain, as sturdy as ever. Elliott translated his signature elements into a foreboding, “I Am the Walrus”-like stomp. Heard in 2003, the song held enormous promise for Elliott’s new direction. Only Elliott would introduce a guitar hook as lovely and haunting as the one that emerges at the 2:26 mark, only to have the song fade out seconds later.

06. Between the Bars

Album: Either/Or (1997)

Which song of the last 20 years do you most wish you’d written? A journalist once asked Madonna this question. Her answer: “Between the Bars”, a two-minute ballad made famous as one of five Elliott songs featured in Good Will Hunting. “Between the Bars” lulls you like a good, stiff drink. Melodically, it really could pass as a lullaby. The phrase “drink up, baby,” repeated throughout, sounds like something you’d coo to an infant. But you’d have to be a serious lover of gallows humor to sing this song to a kid. “Between the Bars” is the sound of a late-night, moody drunk. Its lyrics, written from the perspective of alcohol itself, urge the listener to stay up all night and get quietly hammered. Here is the siren song of that bottle of whiskey next to your nightstand. “Between the Bars” coaxes you to resign from sobriety, to silence the memories and doubts that pollute your head. Elliott sings of “waiting to finally be caught,” expressing the thoughts of a fatalistic drunk playing with death. Defeat never sounded so beautiful.

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