Was it a simple fluke, a compulsive addiction to popular culture, or a
twisted masochistic tendency that urged me to channel surf over to the 1999
Oscars? I can't recall, but through some strange twist of fate, Elliott
Smith was beamed into my living room. Miraculously, there appeared on the
stage a lone performer, armed only with an acoustic guitar and a gleaming
white suit. No laser light show for those with ADD, no MTV-extolled dreamy
good looks to titillate the 14-year-old girls of the world. Astounded, I
could only wonder: Who was this man inhabiting a spotlight meant only for
soulless commercial commodities?
In contemplation of this bizarre moment in TV history, I like to imagine 100
million Americans leaning over their TV dinners in synchrony, collectively
holding their breaths to catch every wispy lyric so charged with explosive
emotion that it shreds a little part of them every time it enters their brains.
As Smith put it, "the whole Oscar thing was one big, happy, freakish
accident," and I couldn't agree more. His performance of "Miss Misery,"
written for Gus Van Sant's "Good Will Hunting," was so shocking and
unexpected, I relished the ache he inflicted somewhere between my
solar plexus and other vital viscera. All I know is that I, too, held my breath, leaned over my TV dinner, and fell hopelessly in love with Elliott Smith.
Elliott Smith is one of those rare souls whose body of work is one giant,
cataclysmic, unending heartbreak. While he recently claimed in a SPIN
interview that "I don't feel sadder than anybody else I know," it's clear this
man experiences emotions on a plane I don't ever care to visit. Both this
"gift" and his seeming inability to deal with it, coupled with a
distaste for the fame it undeniably will bring him, has garnered him
bittersweet comparisons with Kurt Cobain, with haunting echoes of struggles
with substance abuse and attempted suicide. Of his post-girlfriend breakup
incident in 1997, he has only this to say: "Um, yeah - I jumped off a cliff.
But it didn't work."
Elliott Smith's history as a solo artist overlaps with his with his career
as a member of Portland, Oregon's Heatmiser. In 1994 his basement 4-track
recordings surfaced as his solo debut, Roman Candle, on Cavity Search Records, and was soon
followed by Elliott Smith on Kill Rock Stars. Since Heatmiser's
breakup in 1997, he's added Either/Or and last year's major label XO to the
ranks of my favorite albums ever. While the sophistication of his recording
equipment has evolved, and the instrumentation has blossomed from sparse to
inspired, Smith's lyrical genius has remained his trademark. He is an
uncompromising scholar of human behavior, particularly his own, vividly
invoking the irreconcilable gap between who we should be and the
disappointing reality of who we are.
Apart from the stormy lyrics themselves, let us not forget the haunting
music which brings those words to your ears. The lyrics wrap themselves
around beautiful melodies with such innovative, unique phrasing that I'm
always surprised when a line finds perfect resolution in an unexpected
place. I'm ever-incredulous that he can make all those words and syllables
fit, because they stretch out, and start and stop at will, with nary a
concern for traditional couplet structure. His songs are simultaneously structured and precise yet unforced and completely natural,
as if the words knew exactly where to go according to some hard-wired
migratory compulsion. They remain startling for their sophisticated
craftsmanship and emotional intensity even when they're the exclusive
soundtrack to entire phases of my life.
Seeing Elliott Smith play live is a complex experience perhaps best
described as concert-meets-group therapy. A hushed, attentive audience
angrily shush those rude enough to speak, although singing along is
readily condoned, as the large majority of spectators have committed every
blessed word to memory. The atmosphere is jubilant and thick with emotion.
I've had some very intimate and bizarre conversations with complete
strangers after his shows, as if we were survivors bonded together by a
larger-than-life experience. As Mary Lou Lord has observed, "Wynton Marsalis says that the
'blues' are like a vaccine - you gotta get a little to take it away. That's
how it is listening to Elliott. It's so sad and heartfelt that it takes
those feelings away." I'd agree that there's some sort of catharsis
occurring, a calm after the storm described as "buoyancy" by scholars of the
classical tragedies. But by definition you gotta feel bad before you can
feel better. And boy, does he make me feel bad, and in the most delicious
Visit our Elliott Smith Photo Gallery
Read these Elliott Smith reviews: Roman Candle, Elliott Smith, Either/Or, XO
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