[Ed. Note: On behalf of everyone I am so sorry that this article was not posted sooner. My email inbox is an abyss, and it should have been up here months ago. Apologies, apologies. – BP]
He was here. I swear, just a second ago, he was here. He was right in front of us, creating the most ground-shattering music that would make the 1906 Earthquake look tame. However, just as sound eventually fades to nothingness, he eventually disappeared. But he did not fade into the dark. On the contrary, after his tragedy became public, his music seemed to have gotten stronger, only with the labels on his image that came along with that strength: Many choose to view him as the classic sad-sack-tortured-soul-torment-saint-suicide-machine that only Emo kids can appreciate, but the reality is that if you are a human, you are susceptible to understanding one of the most dramatically misunderstood public figures to have ever walked the Earth. He is the disruptive technology that broke the streak of white noise that music was becoming for me. He is a curator of emotionally delicate and unique compositions that tattoo themselves onto the listener’s memory. He is now a ghost.
He is Elliott Smith.
If the Soundtrack of the latest crowd-funded Elliott Smith documentary Heaven Adores You serves any one purpose, it is to dismantle the notion that all of Smith’s songs are soaking in sadness. Just released in February 2016 as a supplement to the documentary itself, this compilation of songs acts as a profile of his recording career, appearing to be laid out chronologically by the order of the tracks’ conception.
The very first song we hear is titled “Untitled Guitar Finger Picking – Demo,” a name familiar to us, and reminiscent of his typical “No Name #1 (through 6).” This Demo song contains a haunting melody in a minor key, a complicated chord progression, and a single guitar line saturated in reverb. All of these are characteristic of Smith’s style, but there’s one stunning detail: He wrote this when he was fourteen years old. From such an early age, it is easy to prophesize what he will go on to accomplish, which is why this track is listed first. It is aimed to illustrate the destiny of this fourteen year old, recording in his room, completely unaware of his terrifyingly beautiful future.
Between the second and third tracks, titled “Untitled Melancholy Song – Demo” and “Don’t Call Me Billy – Demo,” we are allowed to see two sides of Smith that aren’t usually associated with him: the experimental and the goof-ball. The former song is straight from Jimmy Page’s book (pun: page/book), filled with layered distorted guitars all shredding over top of each other. The latter is Smith making fun of every corny 80s punk-rock song with nonsensical lyrics. There’s a driving guitar and bass line, and Smith’s adolescently clunky and punk-oriented voice singing about how he really does not want to be called Billy. After getting the laugh in, the thought comes that if he had taken this seriously, it would have been a gem… and then the realization arrives that this is the exact same song (minus the lyrics) as “Fear City,” off of the 2007 posthumous release New Moon. Well played, Elliott.
The version of “Christian Brothers” performed with his band Heatmiser is placed perfectly in the soundtrack to reflect the sad truth that at this time, the band was holding Smith back. Compared to the version on his self-titled Elliott Smith album, the Heatmiser track is slow, dragging, and a bit jock-rocky. It’s safe to assume that Elliott was feeling the same way about this version, and that if he had done it himself with the style he was identifying with more and more at this time, he could have done it better.
“Hamburgers” is just Elliott showing off (in the grooviest way possible). He wails and wails on the electric piano with Neil Gust on the drums. I imagine him with a cigarette hanging from his teeth and sunglasses on while recording this. Once again, a side of the man that is not commonly associated with his persona. So far, we’ve seen Elliott the prodigy, Elliott the experimental rocker, Elliott the goof, Elliott the punk who wants something more, and Elliott the jazzy pianist. And there are many more sides of the spectrum.
The album’s halfway point marks his growing notoriety. There is a live version of what might be his most famous non-“Miss Misery” song, “Say Yes,” from 1997. The track begins with Elliott having no idea what to play, taking suggestions from the audience, and eventually launching into “the one about the girl.” You can almost get the feeling that he didn’t really want “Say Yes” as much as the crowd did. There’s a taste of reluctance in the song’s introduction, which could foreshadow his future relations with the music industry as a whole.
The soundtrack is occasionally spliced up by interludes of short instrumental recordings, usually only consisting of a few bare acoustic guitar tracks. This juxtaposes the increasingly better quality of his commercial recordings, and could be ordered in this way to represent how no matter where is career was taking him, Smith could still obtain happiness from the initial creation of music. He was still able to conceive these haunting melodies whenever they came to him, and without the pressure of a price tag.
As of right now, I’m tired of using the word “haunting” to describe Elliott Smith. It’s such an overused term (I’m guilty) that its meaning is not as poignant as it should be. However, when it comes to a song like “Waltz #1 – Demo”, it might as well be an all-too-apparent ghost whispering directly into my eardrum. The quality is not optimized like it is on the XO version, but this enhances the intimacy. Upon blasting this through my headphones, I had a physical reaction: I believe my body temperature sank multiple degrees Fahrenheit as the ghost of Elliott Smith’s codified voice sang in dissonance with the piano, “Now, I’m scared to leave my zone, we’re both alone, I’m going home. I wish I’d never seen your face.”
The second half of the soundtrack outlines his later career. When speaking of Elliott Smith from the years 1998-2003, it is difficult to avoid subjects like depression and addiction. The extensive touring for the album XO had disenchanted live performances of his songs. He was troubled in finding his identity as a musician, especially after experiencing the high-class entertainment world through his performance at the Oscars and various television shows, such as the performance of “Miss Misery” on the Late Night with Conan O’Brien show. He struggled to find a balance between the underground postpunk kid and the white-suit-clad crooner who shares the stage with Celine Dion. He had to play his song “Waltz #2” so many times that he had to stop in the middle of his performance on Dutch TV. Industry was taking over creativity. “Activity,” as he sings of happiness, was “killing the actor.”
“Everything Means Nothing To Me” is a track off of Figure 8, and on the soundtrack, marks the ascension into depression and addiction. The story behind the song, according to Spin Magazine, is that he had a psychotic episode while recording Figure 8, and was entirely fed up with industry professionals telling him about the future. So, he carved the word “now” into his arm, sat down at the piano, and wrote “Everything Means Nothing To Me,” while dripping onto the keys.
The Figure 8 tour led to a strung-out Elliott Smith, fully addicted to heroin and crack, not to mention countless prescription medications. He began to play live very infrequently, and usually forgetting his own lyrics, or being unable to play his guitar parts. He was smoking $1,500 worth of crack and heroin per day.
Eventually, he had to go to rehab.
This story line is presented in the form of “True Love,” providing a different experience for every listener. This is a song about dependence. Unreleased, this heartbreaking tale has remained a secret until now. The listener can go in any direction he/she wants to at the line “I’m the king of the ward because I’m good and I swallow my sword… and puke it out for the doctor the write me a new prescription.” It’s a tough song to get through, especially as the very last lines infiltrate your soul, but it’s necessary to understand where his mind stood at the time.
The penultimate song, only next to the final 13-year-old-Elliott belter “I Love My Room,” is a song that ties his entire music career together. It is what he and all humans search for throughout life. It’s all he says he wants: “Happiness.”
I believe that for Elliott, happiness was a location. It was somewhere tangible, where he could rest. It was a break from the redundant and destructive life he had assumed. It was a place just above equivalent to the high he was getting from heroin: what he perceived to be his True Love. He promises that “What I used to be will pass away and then you’ll see that all I want now is Happiness for you and me.” And whoever “you” is believes him because his entire discography up to this point is a track record of his honesty.
Happiness is a place that couldn’t have existed for Elliott on earth unless with the aid of substances. And so we see in his later years, he’s longing for an Eden of sorts: somewhere that he could get lost to achieve happiness and the purity of before he had been exposed to what had twisted him (True Love). This is a place of youthful joy, and for him, it may as well have been his room. Sure enough, the soundtrack’s conclusion comes to us in the form of a young Elliott Smith once again. He’s not singing about depression, addiction, or suffering, but like Salinger’s Sybil, he’s utilizing the extent of his innocent imagination, and elatedly singing out loud about how much he loves his room. How happy he is in his personal Eden.
There’s no way to fully understand the psychology of Elliott Smith, but I believe that he was searching for an Earthly Paradise. Maybe not in the religious context, but he wanted to feel like everything was exactly right, and in his search, he came to understand that there was most likely no such place as Heaven on Earth. And so he went on to search for it elsewhere. He only left behind released and unreleased recordings for us humans to analyze to try and better comprehend this dark, complicated, beautiful soul. If Heaven is a thing, I’m sure it adores the Hell out of him.
JASON McCUE | Elliott Smooth | KXSU Reporter