Elliott Smith: The Joy of Angst

Have you been looking for an artist to really tickle the part of your brain that loves being sad? Well Opinion Contributor Bailey McOwen has just the Oscar Nominee for you: Elliot Smith

Smith live in concert in 1997

I do this thing when I find a song or artist I like where I listen to their music intensely for about three weeks and absolutely nothing else. When I really like the music, I’ll spend countless hours during those three weeks creating several playlists around the song or musician to find similar sounds and encapsulate the vibe. Now, when I totally love the song or musician, this cycle will repeat every eight to 12 months. Exhausting, I know.

While I have become hyper-obsessed with several artists such as Jim Croce, the Pernice Brothers and Manchester Orchestra, there is no other musician I do this as much with as Elliott Smith. If you haven’t heard of the name, there’s a good chance you’ve still heard at least one of his songs, and if you have heard of him, then you know why he’s my go-to artist.

Smith is known for his whispery, folk rock singing and lo-fi production, and he is the inspiration for many of today’s alternative rock musicians as he encompasses the best aspects of artists like Bob Dylan, the Beatles and The Who. While he began playing in the early 90’s, he became extremely popular in 1997 when several of his songs were used in the movie “Good Will Hunting” — particularly his song “Miss Misery,” which earned him an Oscar nomination.

Despite this fame, his style, both in music and life, has never changed. This is obvious in the themes of albums he created after this: “XO” (1998), “Figure 8” (2000), and “From a Basement On The Hill” (2004), which was released after his death in 2003. His songs are consistent yet dynamic from the beginning of his career to the end. Something distinctly Elliott.

Consider some of his most poetic lyrics describing his struggle with drug and alcohol abuse. From one of his most well-known songs “Between the Bars” from “Either/Or,” Smith sings, “Drink up with me now / And forget all about the pressure of days / Do what I say and I’ll make you okay / And drive them away / The images stuck in your head.”

The lyrics tell a story of alcohol dependency, yet almost leave his position open-ended, unfinished. Smith’s personification of the drink as an old friend who offers himself as a way to forget his troubles and quiet singing make it seem like what he faces is not a real problem, yet he shows the pain that comes along with such a disorder through his eerie chord progression and small phrases such as, “do what I say.”

This balladry isn’t only used on topics pertaining to addiction; Smith also uses this skill to describe the pain and euphoria that comes along with love. One of my favorite songs of his, “Twilight,” from his album “From a Basement On The Hill,” discusses finding an unattainable love. 

Smith sings about a girl who’s “a sight to see / She’s good to me […] / She’s a pretty thing and she knows everything,” but unfortunately he is “already somebody’s baby.” On top of this, the girl is facing her own issues, so despite their connection, Smith finds they don’t have enough fight to be together, adding that he would only disappoint her in the end anyway. This self-doubt is another common theme in his lyrics.

Elliott Smith’s music is the culmination of art. His voice, instrumental talents and ability to piece together his favorite characteristics of a diverse group of inspiration from slow jam musicians to novelists like Dostoevsky while creating something entirely unique makes him an outlier among other rock musicians.

I implore you, dear reader, to take a moment to listen to the songs referenced above, as well as these next songs (one from each album), and form your own interpretations of his lyrics and melodies: “No Name #3” from “Roman Candles,” “The Biggest Lie” from “Elliott Smith,” “Ballad of Big Nothing” from “Either/Or,” “Amity” from “XO,” “Everything Reminds Me Of Her” from “Figure 8,” and finally “Let’s Get Lost” from “From A Basement On The Hill.”

Feel free to email me your opinions on my suggestions (fan-mail ONLY) and let me know if  you have any similar artists or songs I can add to my archive of playlists for future listens. I’ve only got about one more week until my obsession is over again until October, so act quick!

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