It’s fair to say that Smith wrote a lot of tortured songs. As beautiful as they all are, they weren’t designed to convey any sense of optimism. Having said that, Angel in the Snow is quite possibly one of the most heartfelt, tender love songs that I’ve ever heard.
It is the kind of song that needs to be listened to with someone equally special: a time for two people to be peacefully alone, but absorbed in each other as the song plays. If you can find (or have found) your own angel in the snow, make sure they know this song exists.
Back in the day (2005 or so), I had quite the collection of unreleased Elliott Smith songs. Not all of them had great audio quality (48 kbps MP3s!), but the songs were still great. And then, in 2007, the powers that be decided to release a bunch of these songs in CD form. One of my favorites of these was Going Nowhere, a song that sounds great however you listen to it. It’s a low-key, incredibly depressing song – but one of his most beautiful, too.
From A Basement On The Hill is the first album of Smith’s that I heard, and had no idea at the time that it was a posthumous album. I just thought, “Wow, this guy is amazing.” So the first time I heard this song, with a million references to drugs and suicide, I went “man, this guy’s got some problems!” When I later learned he died what was from most likely suicide (and that he’d tried it before), I didn’t have anything to say. A guy actually singing “Give me one good reason not to do it!” and then following through is just unreal. I’m incredibly thankful for the amazing music he left behind.
Many of Smith’s songs are rather special for me, but this one especially so. Why? Back in 2004-05, I had met an aspiring level designer and music aficionado called Hugh. Wise as he is, he introduced me to the previously unheard music of Elliott Smith via a song called A Fond Farewell.
To say I was hooked would, perhaps, be an understatement.
I was introduced to his wonderful writing abilities, his elegant compositional talents and a remarkable form of introverted expression. This is the song that kickstarted it all: it led to a comprehensive dive into his back catalogue; it led to this blog; and it led to a deeper appreciation of true beauty within music. I don’t particularly mind if other people don’t have the same reaction to his music that I do. The real value of music comes in whatever the listener gets out of it, after all. It is, however, important to remember that music is an art form, not just a soulless revenue stream, and Smith’s work is the perfect embodiment of that sentiment.
A cursory glance at the title may suggest that this is about David Berkowitz, but Smith always maintained that it wasn’t. Regardless of the subject matter, Son of Sam is probably his most radio friendly song. Having landed a major recording deal with Dreamworks, Figure 8 greatly expanded his compositional range and instrumentation: a fair few of the songs on the album even included a full orchestra backing.
Despite the catchy, indie-rock appeal of this song, it doesn’t follow a typical verse-chorus-verse structure. It’s all the better for it too: rather than having disparate parts and a ‘down-up-down’ tonal pace, this has what feels like an exponential rise until the guitar solo climax. Combined with a rollocking piano backing, a strong beat, and Smith’s superb lyrics, it is one of his more fun tunes, and certainly one of the more interesting radio songs I’ve heard.
I was mulling over which song to post from Figure 8, and decided that, just maybe, people have listened to enough depressing songs already! This is about as close to a love song as you’ll get from Elliott. The chorus “What I used to be will pass away and then you’ll see / that all I want now is happiness for you and me” is both a very sweet goodbye, and sad because he couldn’t find happiness in his life.
Now that we’re onto his major-label debut, XO, he could afford lots of extra instrumentation, leaving the relatively sparse acoustic arrangements behind for a more complete pop experience. The lyrics are even a little more upbeat, though, since we’re still talking about Elliott Smith, generally depressing. Anyway, there’s a pretty good consensus that this song’s about his relationship with his mom and stepdad. He sings nice things about his mom (“I’m never gonna know you now, but I’m gonna love you anyhow“), and some not-so-nice things about his stepdad (“Tell Mr. Man with impossible plans to leave me alone” and “You’re no good, can’t you tell that it’s well understood?“)
It’s a great song on an album of great songs, with absolutely no references to drugs or suicide!
Smith’s first album on a major label (Dreamworks) also resulted in an increase of budget, and it certainly shows on Bled White. The song greatly expands upon the instrumentation, adding multiple guitar parts, piano, bass, drums and multi-tracked vocal harmonies. Despite the increase, none of his lyrical or compositional talent was buried under the added complexity. This is a fairly upbeat tune, but the evocative imagery of the lyrics is as pronounced as it ever was:
Don’t you dare disturb me (don’t complicate my piece of mind)
While I’m balancing my past (don’t complicate my piece of mind)
‘Cause you can’t help or hurt me (the anger, being mean was just a waste of time)
I am none the wiser as to what this song is ‘actually’ about, but to be honest, I really don’t care. The imagery of a dreary city and the people within it beautifully gel with the song itself, giving it an almost tonally sad determination. It is just a spectacular achievement in mood setting, something that Smith absolutely excelled at.
Smith’s work never really achieved the recognition it deserved. However, his talents as a musician rose to the awareness of the greater public for a brief duration when his music appeared in the film Good Will Hunting. Though he was nominated for an Oscar for Miss Misery (which he harrowingly performed at the 1998 Academy Awards, ultimately losing the Oscar to Celine Dion’s atrocious My Heart Will Go On), Between the Bars is a far more tender, bittersweet song. It’s usage in Good Will Hunting is absolutely perfect (and something worth watching if you haven’t).
“What is a poet? An unhappy man who hides deep anguish in his heart, but whose lips are so formed that when the sigh and cry pass through them, it sounds like lovely music…. And people flock around the poet and say: ‘Sing again soon’ – that is, ‘May new sufferings torment your soul but your lips be fashioned as before, for the cry would only frighten us, but the music, that is blissful.”
That’s from Kierkegaard’s Either/Or, which gave this album and, by extension, this blog, its name. The first time I read it, I went “yep, that sums up Elliott Smith pretty well.” One of the very few singers who could share his personal problems so eloquently, so beautifully, that it may cause you to wonder what’s stopping the rest of them.
If you’ve ever been to songmeanings.com, you’ll know it’s a lyrics site where the users try to decipher the meaning of the song. In the case of Elliott Smith, a good 90% of users say all of his songs are about drugs and/or suicide. One sarcastic user wrote “This song is about committing HEROIN while shooting up SUICIDE!”
It sounds like this track off of Either/Or meant Smith dealt with this in his lifetime too, with lyrics like “so sick and tired of all these pictures of me / completely wrong / totally wrong.” The song’s more about how he thinks it’s messed up that he’s becoming famous for being depressed. Or that people think they know him from his songs or dare I say, pictures. A lot of the people who actually knew him say they barely knew him, because he wouldn’t let them.