When you are among the last to discover how awesome a musician is, no one else knows about your discovery and that's kinda how you want it to stay. You feel like vast music knowledge is something you pride yourself on and people come to you for recommendations and yet you overlooked something really important. You somehow let a major player slip through the cracks. It's like you somehow fell asleep at the wheel of the truck hauling the bandwagon. This is the case with me and Elliott Smith. Sort of, anyway.
I've heard of Elliott Smith before. In fact, I've known his music for seemingly always. I recognized (and loved) "Needle In The Hay" when I saw Royal Tenenbaums in theaters. I was saddened by the news of his suicide. I watched a short film he made when it streamed on Pitchfork.tv. I downloaded his entire catalog from Torrents--years ago. However, I failed to give him the close listens he deserved. His music, on the surface, struck me as pretty, sensitive, but ultimately generic singer-songwriterly stuff. Like just another depressed guy with an acoustic guitar and a piano emoting on to tape or ADAT or whatever. However, Elliott Smith is everything but those things.
I mean, okay, in some ways, some of his songs are those things. Pretty, sensitive, acoustic ballads with more than a hint of melancholy. Yet in a very he's also a pop craftsman. He passes my litmus test of ignoring the content of the lyrics and just listening to the sound and music and still ending up pleased. He has much more in common with Jon Brion than your average acoustic singer-songwriter because of his ability to just layer sounds and harmonies so well.
I've spent the day thus far listening to XO a lot and, so far, more inclined to repeatedly listen to the entire album than the others I have on my iPod (Either Or and From A Basement On A Hill). From that album "Waltz #2" and "Oh Well, Okay" are my favorites thus far.
Elliott Smith - Waltz #2
There's something schmaltzy and corny about most Waltzy songs. Or at least it's easy for them to come off that way, but something between the chromatic descending melodies and the lean piano melody save this song from schamltziness and give it an more contemporary and elegant sound that many other pop artists' too overtly retro experiments with waltz-time lack. Or maybe it's the string scrapes near the end of the song that do it?
Elliott Smith - Oh Well, Okay
Now "Oh Well, Okay" on the other hand could've easily wandered into cliche, acoustic singer-songwriter territory. But there's something about the atypical movements of the chord progression and the subtle cello swells that add much more space and harmonic depth to this song that so many bare-bones, acoustic-guitar-plus-vocals singer songwriters lack. To make matters worse, the lyrics are not altogether disposable either. They have pleasant moments that articulate the feelings of real situations. Such as:
If you get a feeling next time you see meI don't like to delve into lyrical interpretations or anything, but sometimes simple, ambiguous lyrics such as that say much more than something more elaborate. Not knowing what the listener/other person is feeling seems to be somewhere at the bottom of these lyrics and yet interpretation could go in other directions too. Good stuff.
Do me a favor and let me know
'Cos it's hard to tell
It's hard to say
Oh well, okay
So despite being the last person in the world to get (at least fully) into Elliott Smith, I'm glad I made it. R.I.P. Elliott, and thanks for the wonderful music.