Next week marks the tenth anniversary of the death of Elliott Smith, a songwriter and singer whose significance and fan base has only continued to grow since his tragic suicide at the age of 34. To this day, the iconic wall of Sunset Boulevard music store Solutions Audio remains a fan memorial, despite several attempts at graffiti and vandalism over the years.
This list isn’t going to be a eulogy for an artist who meant so much to so many for so long. It is instead as good a time as any to remind people of the fact that he was, with no exaggeration, one of the finest American singer-songwriters. The stark honesty and beauty of his music continues to resonate, and this is just a sampling of his finest work.
“Christian Brothers” (from Elliott Smith)
An early recording by Smith from when he was still working with some pretty intimate and lo-fi production, the song is nevertheless a remarkable demonstration of the artist’s gift for both crafting unpredictable yet wholly memorable melodies and injecting intensity into his lyrical content. The fact that lyrics as angry as “No bad dream fucker’s gonna boss me around” are delivered in Smith’s hushed voice only increases the impact. The moment when the two-part harmony sings the words “Nightmares become me” still has the ability to make the hairs stand on end.
“Between The Bars” (from Either/Or)
As stripped down as anything Elliott Smith ever wrote, “Between The Bars” is also infused with a beautiful kind of sadness that became something of a trademark and an albatross when it comes to trying to create a three-dimensional picture of the artist. A lovelorn lament to regret and unfulfilled dreams, it was a song described by Madonna of all people as the song she most wished she’d written. Her cover version of it, performed recently as part of an art gallery piece during which she dropped the song’s meaning entirely to make it about being literally between bars, felt like the definition of sacrilege to a lot of Elliott Smith fans, myself included.
“Sweet Adeline” (from XO)
“Sweet Adeline” might not quite be the best track on XO (“Waltz #2″ would be the most obvious contender for that title), but it is certainly the most startling. Its opening is deceptively quiet as you would expect from Smith, but the first mention of the titular character ushers in a sudden widening of scope, and the increased budget of a contract with Dreamworks (who signed him after the success of Good Will Hunting, a film whose soundtrack Elliott Smith contributed to) suddenly becomes gloriously evident. This was a case of an artist actually gaining creative freedom by signing with a major label.
“Everything Means Nothing To Me” (from Figure 8)
The album that featured the Solutions Audio wall as its cover backdrop was also another step forward in terms of the palette from which Smith drew inspiration. “Everything Means Nothing To Me” was a brief track with abstract lyrics and a muted orchestral swell that recalls none other than the Beatles. The influence of the band on Smith’s work was fairly evident from early on, but became much clearer when Smith had the opportunity to emulate some of the more ornate George Martin productions. This song feels like it could quite easily read “Lennon/McCartney” in the writing credits without looking out of place on one of their golden run of albums.
“Twilight” (from A Basement On The Hill)
There’s a cruel irony in the fact that the prettiest song on Elliott Smith’s first posthumous release also contains some of his saddest writing. There are several occasions on the album when things sound far too autobiographical for comfort considering Smith’s suicide was still so raw, but when he sings “because your candle burns too bright, well, I almost forgot it was twilight,” it gives the song an aching and longing that encapsulate both the startling intimacy of his music and its bruising honesty. More than anything, the song is simply a great example of his gift for a straight-to-the-heart melody and proof that, if anything, he was getting better before personal issues ended up consuming him entirely.