Monday, October 8, 2007
Artist: Elliott Smith
Release Date: February 1997
Label: Kill Rock Stars
Producer: Elliott Smith
"I could make you satisfied in everything you do
All your 'secret wishes' could right now be coming true
And be forever with my poison arms around you
...so glad to meet you, Angeles"
- from "Angeles"
Last week, I got an email from my brother calling me on my shit. He asserted that my Nirvana write-up was sub-standard because I failed to spotlight one important point: the fact that it was, specifically, unplugged, and what that meant to the legacy of the biggest and, up to that point, loudest band of the early 90's. He had an excellent point, and so I offer this as a temporary solution: The impact of Nirvana revealing the sensitive and unguarded emotional core of its principal member and songwriter in the December 1993 airing of Unplugged, and Kurt Cobain's subsequent drug overdose and suicide in early 1994, laid waste to the greater Alternative landscape. The void was filled mostly with the bluster of 4th generation Grunge knock-offs, but those bands thankfully faded. It was on the other end of the spectrum that the lasting art was being made - barely three months after Cobain's death, Elliott Smith, then of the disintegrating band Heatmiser, released his solo debut, Roman Candle, packed with the kind of hushed acoustic tones found in Nirvana's quiet foray. Whether anyone knew it then, or wanted to admit it through his peak years, Elliott Smith was essentially Kurt Cobain's immediate replacement, following his psychologically teetering narratives in the same venue that Nirvana left them - the Unplugged stage. Smith dealt with the same problems as Cobain, right up to the same end; Elliott Smith committed suicide because he was far too fragile to handle this world.
I have stressed over much of this list, but this entry has been as close to agonizing as I've come, mostly because I had to decide on which Smith album to include. For the longest time, pretty much from the beginning, Either/Or was the choice, but because a lot of the songs are of such a high caliber, it's hard to say any one of the songs stand out in the same way as, say, "Needle In The Hay" stands out on the self-titled 1995 album, or "Independence Day" on 1998's XO. And so last week, I went through a brief period where I considered including all three albums in the same entry, as a sort of "choose your own Elliott Smith adventure". I was also going to parallel the arch to Nick Drake's three albums, which seemed a bit too easy. I sat down with all three albums and relistened to them, and the answer was clear; I should've just stuck with my gut, because Either/Or is simply the best album of the three (although it is very close), and of course, of the whole of his career. It also benefits from being Smith's "tipping point"; Either/Or led to Gus Van Sant asking Elliott to be a part of Good Will Hunting, which led to "Miss Misery", which led to The Oscars, which led to relative stardom for a guy who seemed like the shyest person in any room, not unlike another Northwestern singer/songwriter.
Of course, I was wrong about Either/Or not having stand out songs; I think it's just that so many of them are as good as each other that it makes them hard to pick out. His lyrics grew out of whatever lingering punk brattiness there was before, and have moved on to the elegantly wasted imagery that would be his m.o. from then on. If you're going to point to any of them, it's going to be "Between The Bars", an alcoholic anthem of the highest order; reading the lyrics, a song that at a glance seems to be about a self-destructive relationship turns out to be the words of the drink itself coaxing its drinker down the alley of addiction. "Between The Bars" in many ways is the quintessential Elliott Smith song: still acoustic and whispered like the previous two albums, but more clearly recorded like the two to follow, even suggesting distant echoes of where other instruments would fit. And they show up on the very next song, "Pictures Of Me". The song has been slammed for years for being whiny and self-absorbed, but hey man, the dude was insecure just like the rest of us, and he was placing his art out there for a larger audience, "flirting with the flicks", and why shouldn't he write a song about it? The allusions are present elsewhere as well, like on "Rose Parade" where he slyly slips in commentary on the notion of selling out, but disguises it in flowery language like "when i traded a smoke for a food stamp dollar, a ridiculous marching band started playing". The question comes at the end, when Elliott sings, "when they clean the street I'll be the only shit that's left behind", you wonder what's more startling - his self-deprecation or his belief that he can withstand being inevitably spit out by "The Industry"?
His fear of giving himself over to the business of entertainment is in full effect on "Angeles", where he laments having to "lose the gamble that's the history of the trade", and "sign up with evil" with its "poison arms" around him. And while the Nick Drake comparisons can be made, there are whole worlds of influence in the basic music here. These songs have the strung out atmosphere of Big Star's Sister Lovers, conjuring sparsely furnished, rundown apartments, and the sharp bite of early Elvis Costello that wasn't just reserved for the snakes with dollar signs in their eyes. "Ballad Of Big Nothing" seemingly confronts a drug buddy who's fallen too far. It's not immediately clear who he's addressing in "Alameda", but it might be himself. When he lets loose with the crushing verse, "Thinking about your friends, how you maintain all them in a constant state of suspense, for your own protection over their affection; nobody broke your heart, you broke your own because you can't finish what you start", you can see scary flashes of the man that would eventually thrust a big kitchen knife into his own chest. But he's also the same man who could turn around and deliver a beauty like "Say Yes", and you could think it's a different person. Elliott's work would always provoke echoes of the past; the success of "Miss Misery" should've led to him being our Simon & Garfunkel, our Lennon or Harrison, our Chilton, our Drake, our next Cobain. And he was in so many ways. But in the end, he was our Elliott Smith, a fragile man, made of glass, with an aching heart too big for his chest.
01. "Speed Trials"
03. "Ballad Of Big Nothing"
04. "Between The Bars"
05. "Pictures Of Me"
06. "No Name No. 5"
07. "Rose Parade"
08. "Punch And Judy"
10. "Cupid's Trick"
11. "2:45 AM"
12. "Say Yes"
"Between The Bars" [live, somewhere]
"Angeles" [from the short film Lucky Three]
- BONUS: "Speed Trials" [live in Tempe, AZ, 05.97]
- BONUS: "Alameda" [live in Tempe, AZ, 05.97]
- BONUS: "Ballad Of Big Nothing" [live in NYC, 03.99]
- BONUS: "Pictures Of Me" [live in NYC, 03.99]
- BONUS: "Rose Parade" [live in Olympia, WA, 07.99]
- BONUS: "Angeles" [live in Olympia, WA, 07.99]
- BONUS: "Cupid's Trick" [live in NYC, 05.00]
- BONUS: "2:45 AM" [live in NYC, 03.99]
- BONUS: "Say Yes" [live in Tempe, AZ, 05.97]
- BONUS: "Say Yes" [live in Salt Lake City, 09.03]
Elliott's final live performance.
- BONUS: Lucky Three [short film, directed by Jem Cohen]
featuring "Between The Bars", a cover of Big Star's "Thirteen", and "Angeles".
- BONUS: "Between The Bars" [audio/tribute]
4334 West Sunset Boulevard, Hollywood, CA - site of the cover for Figure 8
- DOUBLE BONUS: "Miss Misery" [video]
- DOUBLE BONUS: "Miss Misery" [live on TRL, 1998]
- DOUBLE BONUS: "Miss Misery" [live on the 1998 Academy Awards]