By the time I’d discovered him, Elliott Smith had been dead for well over ten years. He remained an artist that was always on the periphery of my vision, but it took me a long time to finally approach. My approach was awarded with a bounty of astounding music. And it was only after I became immersed in his music that I realized what a talent we had lost in 2003. His death remains officially open, as verdict of suicide or homicide was not given. Whatever the circumstances of his death, it cannot be denied that a major talent was lost.
Smith constructs depression and addiction with a lyrical clarity, but he also brings to the table an unheard of element of the equation. He depicts these experiences sonically, making an absorbing sonic black hole smack against your ear drums with equal parts ferocity and delicacy.
Smith’s last record is often seen in the context of his death, but I think this would do the record a disservice. Smith died in 2003 yet the songs he recorded for what would be his final album, and which are held up as totems of suicide, were performed in the early 2000’s, as Smith toured for his fifth album, Figure 8. Smith seemed to have used music as a way of analysing his life, through metaphor and deep imagery. In these songs, Smith analyses the period where his drug use skyrocketed – due to now having a deal with Dreamworks records he had more disposable income to spend on crack.
Smith shows with cutting accuracy in these songs the allure of a high, but he doesn’t let himself off the hook either. He stares at and analyses depression and addiction unblinkingly. In a key moment in his final album, From a Basement on the Hill, Smith doesn’t spare himself, singing on ‘Twilight’, “You don’t deserve to be lonely, but those drugs you got won’t make you feel better/Pretty soon you’ll find it’s the only little part of your life you’re keeping together.”
From a Basement is filled with moments such as these that take your breath away. One such moments comes on the album’s centre piece, Kings Crossing. As the song distorts and the pitch becomes sporadic, Smith sings “Give me one good reason not to do it”. When Smith played the song live the audience would often sing in response “because we love you”. In the recorded version, his mother and his girlfriend can be heard quietly saying “because we love you”.
Moments like these define the experience of listening to Elliott Smith’s music. As achingly beautiful as they are agonisingly sad, Smith’s music often becomes an odd uplifting experience. Few artists have epitomised the term bittersweet as Smith’s music has. His subject is often bleak, as was his life, but ultimately Smith’s music is an extension of a hand, telling you you’re not alone. Taken as a whole Smith’s compositions are amongst the most emotive ever committed to tape.
As Dan Turkel wrote in an essay for Death & Taxes, “An Elliott Smith record is a declaration that it’s okay to feel… that every emotion can be made beautiful, and that suffering doesn’t preclude the ability to create something profound and amazing.” Smith ends King’s Crossing on the lyric, “don’t let me be carried away”. Unfortunately, Smith was carried away, but his music remains, reaching across time, reassuring you that it’s okay to feel with each and every chord.