Saturday, January 13, 2007

Elliott Smith - A Short Review On The Artist

Elliott Smith. For many, the name will mean nothing. For even more, it means everything. I was once a part of the former group. This should not in any way imply that I have joined the ranks of the latter. Elliott Smith does not mean everything to me. However, he now means something; and, for someone who’s writing a review on his work, that’s a good place to start.

He once said that “people just… y'know, they'll review your record in two sentences and put you in this little stupid box that you don't want to be in.” He’s right. People like me will sit up in our ivory towers thinking we know something about music. Thinking we know enough to listen to stuff like Elliott’s and make a definite judgment on it. I’m not going to do that. To do so would be to insult the art that is Elliott Smith. Even he was loathe to talk of the meaning behind his music and lyrics. He preferred to write the songs, record them, and then let the listeners take from them whatever meaning they wanted to. He admitted to not thinking “about the general public since I have no idea what the general public is and I don't think anybody does.” The fact that he himself may not have even known what his lyrics meant is something that most fans would not be able to accept as a possibility. However, it was a reality: “sometimes it seems like because I'm the one that made it up, it makes me kind of a bad person to ask what the songs are about.”

Throughout his music, and his interviews, the prevailing image of Elliott Smith is one of a man who would prefer to sit behind a screen and play his music from there. In fact, he once suggested doing just that when asked to play guitar at a friend’s gig. He constantly worried about people’s inability to look past the posters, to see past the image of Elliott Smith portrayed after the breakthrough into the ‘popular music’ world that was “Miss Misery” (the Oscar nominated song which featured on ‘Good Will Hunting’ and secured Elliott a performance on the Oscars). “There's a part of songs that are always personal, but I'm not particularly interested in concocting a picture of myself. The media is more about building celebrities than playing music.”

On the 21st October, 2003 Elliott Smith allegedly took a kitchen knife, and stabbed himself through the heart. His final, although unfinished, album ‘From A Basement On The Hill’ was released after his death. Someone once said of it that ‘if you’re not moved in some way, then you don’t move.’ It certainly may not have been his best work, but it had the potential to be. So was ‘Basement’ just a suicide note put to music? Retrospectively, you could forgive one for thinking it might be. It is hard to listen to it without the tragedy of his death overwhelming the music. However, it shouldn’t be scrutinised for all possible hints that death was at the forefront of his mind. It was one of my favourite Elliott Smith albums before I found out it had been released posthumously. From the opening track “Coast To Coast”, it is evident that you’re in for an emotional ride. The track begins with the faint sounds of whispering voices, before launching into a song that could easily be the soundtrack to your life. “Last stop for a resolution, end of the line. Is it confusion?” Down-beat lyrics to an Up-beat tune. Due to the fact that the track listing was put together after his death, some tracks do seem a bit misplaced. “Let’s Get Lost” could ironically be referring to the innocent listener getting lost in the muddled myriad of emotions dripping from one track into the other. A melting pot of emotion; perhaps the best tribute that could be paid to an artist who believed that the more emotion in a song the better as “that’s what people are like.” “Twilight” is one of my favourite songs on the album. The fragility of Smith’s voice is hauntingly tragic; “I could make you smile if you stayed a while, but you’re already somebody’s baby.”

It has been said that “Smith's music transcends the bland work of songwriters such as Damien Rice, Ryan Adams and David Gray - there's real emotion here”. I think to say that is to go a bit far. Elliott Smith is not the only one to arm his songs with emotive force. There are plenty of others out there who sing with as much pain and sadness and hunger and despair. The fact that he may have killed himself does not make his music more credible; and yet, for many of his fans, the fact that he may have killed himself is precisely the reason his music gained credibility. Genius should not need tragedy in order for it to be detected. Perhaps we should accept that Smith was no musical genius. He was simply a guy singing about the way “I feel, and the way others I know feel.” In a world where emotions are created only to be suppressed, perhaps that is the only type of genius worth talking about.


luke said...

i love elliot smith

Anonymous said...

Are you fucking kidding me? He was a musical genius. He reached a different level than any other credited musician has. Even the bigger "underground" artists are still totally generic in a way people refuse to notice. He was fucking incredible; his music was beautiful, his guitar was beautiful, his voice was spine-chilling, and his lyrics reached a different level of life and heartbreaks interpretations. Don't overlook his posthumous success into saying it's just because he died. He's fucking amazing.

Anonymous said...

You obviously have yet to really hear Elliott's music if thats what you have to say about him, and further more you actually have to know what pain is before you can realize how genius Elliott was when it came to capturing human emotions. There are plenty including myself who dont even know if Elliott actually killed himself, (kinda hard to stab your self twice in the heart), and his death could not be ruled out as either, as he even had small defense like cuts on the palms of his hands... so your saying that this is the reason why so many love him and veer him as genius is absurd. He had the same fans that loved him to death in life as he does now, and he is a genius to anyone competent enough to understand the lyrics. You talked about how you werent going to put Elliott in a box, but you already have. Maybe you should experience life a little bit more before righting off such an amazing artist, there will never be anyone like Elliott, and there are plenty of musicians who owe their success to Elliott....Elliott isnt loved because hes gone, hes loved because he was a deserving soul of such love, he has helped countless people get through hard times, and happy times....