Saturday, November 20, 2010

Elliott Smith. (Part 2)

Hi all. I’m taking advantage of the slow workday/traveling I’m about to do today, the day before Thanksgiving, to try to finish this Elliott Smith plan. As you know, I spent Sunday in a football-induced daze, and then Monday and Tuesday listening to Kanye West’s new album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, as many times as humanly possible. Both of these things were absolutely necessary. But now I’m back at it.

XO (1998)

What I thought of the album: Alright now this one sounds more different. I’m told (by Wikipedia) that this is almost assuredly the result of Smith’s signing to a major label (DreamWorks Records) and enlisting the aid of a bunch of other musicians (including the awesome Jon Brion). So we’ve got some rockin’ pianos and electric guitars and drums and such, on most of the songs. But Smith’s voice is still the same, double-tracked and whispery as ever. It’s an interesting combination. I probably didn’t like this as much as Either/Or, but he’s certainly spreading his wings a little here.

Maybe this is a function of how expanded the sound is on this album, but it doesn’t feel nearly as sad as the first three. The affable “Waltz No. 2 (XO)” features this positively swingin’ chorus, by Smith standards: “I’m never gonna know you now / but I’m gonna love you anyhow.” (I guess it’s sad that he’s never going to know her, but aww! Love! That’s nice.) And the jaunty “Independence Day” appears to be about a butterfly! WHAT.

Wikipedia tells me that around this time is when Smith began exhibiting signs of depression that would only worsen in the next five years. But man some of these songs are upbeat! “Baby Britain” is way poppier than anything I’d expected to hear from Elliott Smith, that’s for sure. So if the narrative I’ve picked up on in my cursory research is to be trusted, with a major label deal and a bunch of other cool musicians at his side, Elliott Smith made a kind-of pop album. Not bad for a guy who would eventually kill himself!

Saddest lyrics: From “Pitseleh:” “The first time I saw you I knew it would never last / I'm not half what I wish I was / I'm so angry / I don't think it'll ever pass / and I was bad news for you just because / I never meant to hurt you”

From “A Question Mark:” “Don't know what you mean / said your final word, but honesty and love could've kept us together / one day you'll see it's worth it after all / if you ever want to say you're sorry you can give me a call”

From “Everybody Cares, Everybody Understands:” “You say you mean well, you don't know what you mean / fucking ought to stay the hell away from things you know nothing about”

And then all of “I Didn’t Understand” is actually pretty bitter for an album closer. Also see what he did there, calling the next-to-last song “Everybody Cares, Everybody Understands,” and then the last one “I Didn’t Understand.” Tricky one, that Elliott Smith.

Either/Or (1997)

What I thought of the album: This is generally regarded to be Elliott Smith’s best album. In 2003, Pitchfork called it the 59th best album of the 1990s, and wrote of it, “Achingly spare, these songs were hushed and intimate…” (The kind of talk I mocked like three posts ago. Boom.) (Also, they ranked Pinkerton as the 53rd best album of the 90s. Which makes me want to throw up all over the place. I promise not to mention Pitchfork any more in this blog.)

But yes so I liked it very much. The three days I just spent listening to the new Kanye West album over and over again makes it more difficult for me to compare it to Roman Candle and Elliott Smith, but I’m pretty sure they’re fairly similar, all things considered. More drums on this album (Smith played all the instruments himself, which is pretty baller), and some of the songs are bigger, louder (“Cupid’s Trick”). I don’t mean to be a Philistine about this stuff, but they do kind of all run together at a certain point. I don’t know if this is a natural part of listening to an album once or twice and then writing about it, or if it’s a defect of Smith’s songwriting or whatever. Some songs do stand out, I suppose; “Say Yes” is obviously quite lovely, and I’ve always liked “Angeles.” I guess on the whole it’s probably the best of the three so far.

At the end of the day it almost feels like a chore though to get through some of these songs (not all of them). It’s like a lot of the movies I’ve watched, in that regard. Like taking your medicine. It’s good, I know it’s good, I appreciate the artistry here. But I wouldn’t want to live there.

Saddest lyrics: From “Alameda:” “And now you see your first mistake was thinking that you could relate / for one or two minutes she liked you / but the fix is in/ you're all pretension / I never pay attention / nobody broke your heart / you broke your own because you can't finish what you start”

From “Ballad of Big Nothing:” “Now you can do what you want to whenever you want to / do what you want to whenever you want to / do what you want to whenever you want to though it doesn't mean a thing / big nothing”

From "No Name No. 5:" "Well I hope you're not waiting / waiting around for me / because I'm not going anywhere / obviously got a broken heart and your name on my cast / and everybody's gone at last"

From "Rose Parade:" "I used to like it here / it just bums me out to remember / can't you ever treat anyone nice? / I think I'm gonna make the same mistake twice"

From “2:45 AM:” "I'm walking out on center circle / the both of you can just fade to black / I'm walking out on center circle / been pushed away and I'll never go back"

Elliott Smith (1995)

What I thought of the album: Really good. Similar in style to the first album, but it seems more polished, or professional, or whatever. Maybe because it was not recorded in a basement. The songs are a bit more varied on this album; I had this notion that Smith has a very monolithic sound, where all the songs kind of run together, and that’s less true on this album as it was on the first. The extra instrumentation that pops up here and there (drums on “Christian Brothers” and “Coming Up Roses,” harmonica on “Alphabet Town”) helps break up the relative monotony. I also got a better sense of what a skillful guitarist Smith is on this album; he can make the guitar whatever he needs it to in each of the songs.

But what’s really striking on this album are the lyrics. Frequently bitter, accusatory, and angry, Smith’s lyrics are really dark here, and tackle some deep shit (alcoholism on “Clementine,” other drug abuse on “Needle in the Hay” and “St. Ides Heaven”). Sometimes the music reflects this darkness, and other times it kind of acts as a counterpoint to it (like with the pretty harmonies with Rebecca Gates on “St. Ides Heaven”). It’s often quite unnerving. On the whole, I definitely preferred it to Roman Candle. I might actually listen to this album fairly regularly now. It’s also getting pretty sad in here.

Saddest lyrics: From “Needle in the Hay:” “Strung out and thin / calling some friend trying to cash some check / he's acting dumb / that's what you've come to expect”

From “Clementine:” “They're waking you up to close the bar / the street's wet you can tell by the sound of the cars / the bartender's singing Clementine / while he's turning around the open sign / dreadful sorry Clementine”

From “Coming Up Roses:” “I'm a junkyard full of false starts / and I don't need your permission / to bury my love under this bare light bulb / the moon is a sickle cell / it'll kill you in time”

From “St. Ides Heaven:” “Cos everyone is a fucking pro / and they all got answers from trouble they've known / and they all got to say what you should and shouldn't do / though they don't have a clue”

From “Good to Go:” “I wouldn't need a hero if I wasn't such a zero / if I wasn't such a zero / good to go / all I ever see around here is things of hers that you left lying around / it's all I ever see around here”

From “The Biggest Lie:” “Oh we're so very precious, you and I / and everything that you do makes me want to die”

Roman Candle (1994)

What I thought of the album: It's good. Not overwhelmingly depressing, but certainly still pretty rough at times. Smith recorded this album pretty much by himself, in his girlfriend's basement with a four-track recorder. Just typing those words made me feel impossibly hip. I kind of expected each song to be terribly bleak, but that wasn’t the case. I think the issue is that, while the lyrics are occasionally terribly bleak (examples to come), the music isn’t as forbidding in that way. It’s even bouncy at times (“Condor Ave” and “No Name #2” in particular). “Last Call” features an electric guitar and something approaching a full-band sound, and the instrumental final track, “Kiwi Maddog 2020” actually features a semi-full-band. So it’s not completely spare and bleak and other adjectives that music critics use when they really mean “unlistenable.” It is decently listenable.

Smith’s distinctive vocal style (kind of whispery and like he’s kind of sick, or something like that), and the double-tracked vocals that dominate each track are what linger after listening to this album. Plus the whole lo-fi thing. I’m interested to see how things change once he gets into a real studio and stuff. Plus, while this album probably sets the tone for the rest of his output (by which I mean, pretty much all of the stereotypical Elliott Smith-type stuff is present here), it is almost certainly not as dark as the albums he would make as he sank deeper into depression and such (if you’ll allow me to apply a VH1 “Behind the Music” type approach to psychology here). We’ll see.

Saddest lyrics, yoinked from the official Elliott Smith fansite, Sweet Adeline: From “Roman Candle:” “I hear you cry / your tears are cheap / wet hot red swollen cheeks / fall asleep / I want to hurt him / I want to give him pain”

From “Condor Ave:” “Now I'm picking up to put away anything of yours that's still around / I don't know what to do with your clothes or your letters”

From “No Name #1:” “Leave alone 'cos you know you don't belong / you don't belong here / slip out quiet / nobody's looking / leave alone / you don't belong here”

From “No Name #4:” “For a change she got out before he hurt her bad / took her records and clothes / and pictures of her boy / it really made her sad”

And pretty much everything in the song “Last Call.” Oof! Bitter. I particularly like the line repeated several times at the end: “I wanted her to tell me that she would never wake me.” Not very happy.


  1. baby, i got my facts...LEARNED REAL GOOD RIGHT NOW


  2. i'm considering marking this comment as spam.