Needle in the Hay: Remembering Elliott Smith
[On the 10th anniversary of his death, revisit a piece Karen Schoemer wrote for us in 2010 celebrating Elliott Smith's remarkable legacy. — Ed.]
Elliott Smith’s biography is cursed with details better suited to a tabloid star than a brilliant songwriter. There’s depression, drug addiction, failed attempts at recovery, suggestions of childhood sexual abuse. Once he walked off a cliff, impaling himself on a tree. (“But let’s talk about something else,” he blithely asked an interviewer, hardly the suave deflector.) There were concerts when he couldn’t remember songs and doting audience members came to his rescue, calling out lyrics and chords. Friends describe late-night vigils holding his hand, talking him out of killing himself. And when death came, on October 21, 2003, the autopsy was inconclusive — initial reports stated the death was a suicide, but the Los Angeles coroner left open the possibility of homicide.
Smith’s stratospheric talents deserve a better legacy, but the modest trickle of posthumous releases hasn’t done enough. From a Basement on the Hill, unfinished at the time of his death, came out in 2004 and was met with guarded appreciation, sort of like a manuscript partially ghostwritten by a secret, skillful editor. Fans dug 2007′s New Moon, a collection of mostly unreleased tracks culled from early solo sessions (Elliott Smith in ’95 and Either/Or in ’97), but while these castoffs sparkled valiantly enough, they hardly expanded the base.
As always, it is Smiths’ proper albums that yield the greatest reward. Though Roman Candle is somewhat nascent, with a reliance on conventional folk guitar phrases and angry breakup themes that he would soon outgrow, it’s nevertheless full of revelations — Smith, just 25, was well on his way toward inventing his own songwriting language, with asymmetrical structures, unusual rhyme schemes and lines spilling from one measure into another. “No Name #2″ has a melody that can almost be described as jaunty, and a Dylanish wheeze of harmonica, even though the lyrics seem to suggest a girl calling an uncaring dude to announce that she’s pregnant. “Condor Ave.” is particularly haunting: picked guitar, double-tracked vocals and a slew of disturbing images — a car accident, a creepy fairgrounds drunk, clueless cops. “I threw the screen door like a bastard back and forth,” he sings.
I’m even fonder of From a Basement on the Hill, which combines the sleepy softness of his early work with the elaborate arrangements of his two major-label albums, XO in ’98 and Figure 8 in ’00. Though Smith at times sounds tremulous or tired, and though some of the sonic ideas feel like excursions not fully followed through, his gifts remain almost scarily abundant. “Coast to Coast” and “Don’t Go Down” are fuzzed-out wall-of-sound rockers densely layered with staticky background noise and ominous feedback rumbles. “Memory Lane” is a chilling tour through pharmacological hell. “A Fond Farewell” shows off his flawless George Harrison chops and features couplets worthy of the warped Shakespearean who seemed to live inside his brain: “Things full of disappearing ink/ Vomiting in the kitchen sink.” And “Twilight” is a song so majestic, so perfect, so haunting, I don’t even want to breathe on it. It tells the story of two wrecked souls, probably in some institution, clinging to each other while the realities of the outside world abstractly weigh upon them. “If I went with you, I’d disappoint you too,” Smith apologizes. Heretical as it is to say, From a Basement is my favorite Elliott album. Wounded and down for the count, he still triumphed, like a prize fighter taking a round with one arm tied behind his back.
I get the irrational feeling, listening to Smith, that we owe him something, that we haven’t done enough to acknowledge him. It’s as if we taken his own self-deprecating attitude too literally — this is the guy who sang, “And when they clean the street I’ll be the only shit that’s left behind” — and allowed him to drift too far into oblivion. With all due respect to Jeff Buckley, Smith communicated similar dimensions of emotional pain with one-tenth of the bombast and pretension; with respect even to Kurt Cobain, who plumbed similar depths of wretched alienation, Smith had the courage to whisper his agonies instead of scream them. Nowadays Nevermind bears the patina of nostalgia, while “Needle in the Hay” or “Speed Trials” are more nuanced and darkly seductive than ever. Smith’s disjointed lyric style defies easy reasoning; the suspense he creates never resolves or abates. His songs are just hard to wear out. Maybe there could be a parade in his honor, or a worldwide moment of silence where pedestrians stop in their tracks, commuter trains screech to a halt, flags unfurl and misty-eyed folks turn skyward and salute. It’s a nice image, isn’t it? But kind of stupid, too. Maybe Elliott’s low-key, slightly misunderstood legacy is just right for him. We can celebrate him in our own private, teary ways. He never cared much for parades, anyway, with blurping trumpeters, children grasping for tossed candy and the crowd’s garish, twisted faces. Come to think of it, neither do we.