Ranked: Elliott Smith
Aug 30, 2013
Welcome to Ranked, our recurring series in which one of our writers takes an artist's catalogue and ranks all of their official studio albums from most essential to least essential. The order is decided by the individual writer, rather than our editors. If you disagree with our ranking then please let us know in the comments section. This time Chris Drabick ranks Elliott Smith.
On the morning of October 22, 2003, I woke, made coffee, and then plodded over to my computer and started poking around the Internet. A typical morning. The news that hit my screen very shortly rendered it anything but: Elliott Smith was dead in Los Angeles. Apparent suicide. I was devastated. I heard the mail carrier arrive. I went to my box. In among whatever else had arrived was a package from Suicide Squeeze Records.
Several times I'd tried to order Elliott Smith's single "Pretty (Ugly Before)" from the Seattle label. I was too late each time, until a week or so before. I was excited. It was Smith's first proper release since Figure 8, an interminable three years plus for a dedicated, nerdy fan like me. Elliott Smith's songs moved me. That's all there is to it. They made me feel sick to my stomach. They were perfect.
Mary Lou Lord was fond of saying that Elliott was the new Kurt Cobain, and I guess she'd know as well as anyone. He was making music for "the sad kids." Maybe. I don't know. I can't know. What I'm certain of is that even Elliott Smith's saddest songs never made me feel sad. How could they? Because they were often minor chord whispers in the darkest of the dark? Because he wrote rage-filled screams at those who hurt and abuse? I didn't, and I don't, find that sad. I find it empowering. And I'm forever grateful that Elliott Smith empowered me.
I opened the package and brought the 7" into my living room. I switched the turntable to 45 (this is an annoyance on that old stripped-down NAD of mine, as it involves lifting off the platter to manually move the belt). Elliott Smith's voice filled my apartment, a new song, a beautiful, sad, hopeful song. Of course, it's just a coincidence. If I'd been luckier or more resourceful or on top of things, that single would've arrived far earlier. But it didn't. It arrived October 22, 2003, the morning I'd learned of his death, the only day it could've empowered me.
It says a lot about the weight of Smith's talents that picking this record as his best will probably get me assailed in the comments. Bring it on.
Clearly enamored with having extra money and time in the studio, Smith runs wild, multi-tracking everything until songs like "Tomorrow Tomorrow" and "Everybody Cares, Everybody Understands" barely have room to breathe. Isn't that the point, though? Thematically, Smith's narrators (and, to be fair and clear, most of those narrators are speaking in the first person, which says a lot—probably everything) are fucked up, lost, and drunk (in the case of "Baby Britain," all three at the same time). Perhaps it's too difficult for some listeners to embrace the harshness of Smith's words and sentiments set against the clarity of the sonic vision and the most arresting set of melodies he'd put together. But it's a "beautiful confusion," and XO presents Smith necessarily growing past the limitations of the four-track to inhabit an impossible space between truth and beauty.
As an aside, I've never seen anyone else discuss the VS, VSOP, XO double meaning of the record's title. Now I have.
It would be fair to say that Either/Or presents Smith's strongest collection of songs, even if its decidedly lo-fi presentation lacks the punch of its successor. It's a beginning-to-end powerhouse, and it's for good reason that several of its songs found their way, unadorned and unchanged, into the soundtrack for Gus Van Sant's Good Will Hunting. Smith sounds confident and overwhelmed at the same time, and masters the neat trick of making rage sound pretty. It's no accident that the record ends with its most hopeful moment; "Say Yes" was a mixtape standby for thousands of lovestruck indie kids and still retains its emotional immediacy. Also, if "Ballad of Big Nothing" has never brought you to tears then you must have some disorder of the tear ducts, and I'm sorry about that, because you'd probably like to cry it out as that one reaches its satisfying crescendo but it just isn't the same pouring artificial tears down your face and now I've made us both feel uncomfortable.
Although still recording as a sidelight to his main gig in Heatmiser, here Smith sets the template for his future full-lengths: carefully picked and strummed acoustic guitars, fragile melodies that seem lifted from the alternate universe where Elliott replaced Michael Brown in the Left Banke and they never skipped a beat, and downtrodden, sometimes profane lyrical concerns that find the unexpected glamour in bouncing around your neighborhood drinking malt liquor from a paper bag. It lacks the variations in tone and tempo that would make his later records easier to digest in a single sitting, but "Clementine," "Coming Up Roses," and "The Biggest Lie" stand among his finest compositions.
The last record actually completed by Smith, Figure 8 stands as a logical follow-up to XO; it's bigger but not better, louder but not prettier, and sometimes substitutes bluster for songcraft. That's not to say it isn't still often breathtaking; opener "Son of Sam" may be the perfect distillation of Smith's strengths, "Stupidity Tries" could've easily been his biggest hit had DreamWorks ever known what the fuck to do with him, and "Happiness" reveals surprises on even the hundredth spin.
Even the record's weakest moments can be satisfying. "Color Bars" is pretty and creepy, "Wouldn't Mama Be Proud" rocks as hard as anything in his catalogue, and "I Better Be Quiet Now" is one of his finest Paul McCartney imitation exercises. But there are too many moments in which the "because-I-can" decisions don't serve the song; witness the unnecessary harpsichord of "Junk Bond Trader" or the proggy delivery of the otherwise lovely "Pretty Mary K." You can call it a flawed masterpiece, which is pretty great for a record I'm claiming as his fourth-best.
Also, it's too bad there was ever another song called "Somebody That I Used To Know." Elliott's is the only one you'll ever need.
Short but not slight, Smith's solo debut may have found him in the throes of some bad musical habits (just name all those "No Names," for crying out loud), and is often a tenuous step forward, but remains an essential document of his progression. It's hard not to hear how some of the best songs here could have been improved upon by the more confident performances he'd deliver later in his career, but "No Name #3" (see what I mean?) and the title track arrived fully-formed and did more than hint at the brilliance to follow.
The second of the posthumous releases, New Moon collects two dozen tracks recorded during Smith's 1994-97 peak, and it often shows. These are essentially Smith's throwaways, but they're often better than many artists' proper releases. The best songs—"Angel in the Snow," "Seen How Things Are Hard," and "Looking Over My Shoulder" among them—are indispensable, but there are several outtakes and early versions that are for completists only (although the stripped-down "Pretty Mary K" does show that the more-is-better approach of Figure 8 was sometimes the wrong one). New Moon is a worthy addition to the catalogue.
From a Basement on a Hill
Cultists will argue forever about this record's true state of completion, about whether it should stand as a true release and therefore Smith's final statement of intent, or if it's a piecemeal, best-guess summation of what he was working on at the time of his death. I suppose I'm aligned with the latter camp. What's presented on Basement is too often Figure 8's worst tendencies writ large: bellowing low end and spooky noise bury "Coast to Coast," "Don't Go Down" plods where it could/should swing, and the metallic delivery overwhelms the pretty melody of "Shooting Star." It's still got its charms, of course; "Twilight" is gorgeous if perhaps a touch too long, "Strung Out Again" works as a White Album outtake, and the previously-released "Pretty (Ugly Before)" is simply one of my favorite Elliott Smith songs. There's plenty to recommend Basement, just not at the expense of his earlier records.
NOTE: It's too bad no label has been able to compile Smith's B-sides and soundtrack contributions at this point; many of his singles contain songs that are essential ("Division Day," "Alphabet Town," "I Don't Think I'm Ever Gonna Figure it Out," the alternate version of "A Distorted Reality is Now a Necessity to be Free"). Seek 'em out and compile them yourself, I guess.