John Waters once wrote that “more than anything in the world, I hate people who confide, ‘I had the weirdest dream last night.’ ” I enthusiastically agree. But that said, here is my confession of obsession with Elliott Smith, as written in my notebook the morning after a weird dream:
“My dream (3rd? 4th?) about Elliott Smith: He was playing a big show. I was there, with [my friend] India, in the front. Folding chairs. We left and snuck into his rented house, which was un-fancy, a lower-middle-class family-style carpeted house. I was in underwear and a small button-down shirt. He came in, went up the stairs, didn’t see us. We felt very nervous, hid. Initially when he discovered us he was pissed, annoyed. But I was very sweet and apologetic and normal and tried to tell him I wasn’t a stalker. He understood, and we all chatted in a friendly way.”
Now for the downward spiral of goofiness. “Later we all went someplace together, and it was a store which sold pillows and comforters and furniture, homemade looking, in reds and yellows and stitchy. It was Elliott’s store. I stupidly thought that he himself made the stuff. [We’re talking patchwork quilts here . . . ] For a moment we were all huddled together tightly. I knew we were going to kiss, our faces were smiling and moving closer together. And then we did.”
Yikes! Or how about the one where Elliott was gay and told me how his ex-boyfriend used to put out cigarettes on his arm and showed me the scabs and we had an emotional, protracted embrace? Crikey . . . But now that the mortifying truth of the seemingly shabby quality and riven extent of my preoccupation with Elliott Smith has been so baldly trotted out, and I have outed myself as searingly foolish, I will explain briefly the obsession’s inception and trajectory.
About four years ago, studying the Kill Rock Stars label mail-order list, I came across a description for Elliott’s “Speed Trials” 7-inch: “Light years more sincere than ‘folk,’ more powerful than ‘punk.’ Nonreligious gospel from/for disbelievers.” And for his self-titled LP: “This is not quiet desperation. Elliott sings what he knows & when you hear it his way you know it to be true.” Yucky, I thought. It’s not the fault of the nice KRS people, because it is hard to praise Elliott’s music without sounding like a corny asshole, but the tongue-in-cheek, genre-conscious “folk”/”punk” appraisal delivered me into a state of extreme noninterest. Months later, I noticed one of my roommates had an admiration for Elliott Smith’s “not quiet desperation” album—but she also played a lot of Kristin Hersh that fall, so I wasn’t paying much attention. I developed a slight aversion: like, “why is everybody so taken with this ‘beautiful’ music? It must suck.” What a bad attitude.
My deeply grave repentance kicked in last year, when I converted to Elliott’s brilliant, lachrymose 1997 release, either/or. It was after XO had already come out (and I’d noticed it in my own wee way) when on a whim one day I borrowed my roommate‘s copy of either/or, and I didn‘t stop playing it for weeks and weeks: before bed, before rising, in the car. What a raging dork I had been! I lamented that I had not paid better attention to his music when opportunities had come my way—in my own fucking house, no less!—for years. And how come all I noticed when watching the ’98 Oscars was Elliott’s white suit and shy demeanor?
either/or totally killed me all over the fucking place, and I quickly, passion mounting, bought all his records: the super low-fi, boy-with-a-guitar Roman Candle (1994), the most-stunning-ever tribute to a habit Elliott Smith (1995), the overproduced (relatively speaking) but still entrancing first DreamWorks release XO (1998). I even bought an old 7–inch called “Dirty Dream” by Heatmiser (Elliott’s now defunct rock band) and not only does it actually saucily rock, but it’s also appropriate, because all my dreams about Elliott make me feel dirty, on the inside.
On either/or, songs such as “Rose Parade,” with lines like “when they clean the street I’ll be the only shit that’s left behind,” intrigued me with their depressive abandon and narrative style. I felt like if anything really, truly bad ever happened to me, what I would do is lock myself in my room with that record, and I’d be okay. And further, beyond his assuaging effect, I was shocked and impressed, and still am, by how consistently superlative a songwriter Elliott is. I loathe ’90s culture, but what redeems this substupid past decade is an artist like Elliott Smith, who makes music that transcends the silly popular binary of “sensitive” versus “badass” and does so not merely by engaging in the simplistic structural irony of form (his pure, charming melodies) versus content (pissy lyrics like “Fucking better ought to stay the hell away from things you know nothing about,” from XO‘s sonorous, lilting “Everybody Cares, Everybody Understands”). The music itself, lyrics aside, is both gorgeous and harsh, instantly tuneful in places, unpredictable in others. If I had ever written “Last Call” from 1994’s Roman Candle, I’d be happy for the rest of my life. Throwing out red herrings and making you enjoy the chase, the song constantly feels ready to climax, but gentle and insinuating, it builds up early to the heavy, declarative “You’re a crisis/You’re an icicle/You’re a tongueless talker/You don’t care what you say/You’re a jaywalker and you just walk away,” only to be punctuated later by the soft, melodic interlude of “I start to drink and just want to continue.”
“I’m not interested in making ‘Elliott Smith’ records over and over again,” Elliott Smith said recently. “I’d be really happy if I could write a song as universal and accessible as ‘I Second That Emotion.’ ” Admittedly, part of what Elliott Smith records entail is malaise, but it’s unfair that he gets pigeonholed as miserable—as Rolling Stone puts it, he is “best known for penning wispy odes to the misunderstood.” Which is too bad. On the one hand, profound melancholy is obvious in his lyrics; my best friend first appreciated him because, as she said, “I would just off myself if I were that depressed, instead of being able to write beautiful songs.” On the other hand, ascribing what he describes in his songs as the “truth” about him is facile, even while doing so is both satisfying and fascinating. I was bummed out at first to read that he wrote either/or‘s romantic “Say Yes,” a song that makes critics cream in their pants, while watching Xena—but this demystification is crucial to not infantilizing Elliott with preconceived notions, and to giving him credit as something more talented than a mere diarist of darker emotions.
Some people will, then, complain that Figure 8 is too happy. My very favorite song on it, defiant in un-irony and sumptuously repetitive, is even called “Happiness.” “What I used to be will pass away,” Elliott asseverates, “and then you’ll see that all I want now is happiness for you and me.” I wouldn’t say these songs are any more universal than those on earlier records (in fact, lyrically, they feel pretty esoteric), but they are more silvery, more artful, more than ever invoking the fact that Elliott’s been playing piano since he was a petite decade-old and writing on guitar since he was a pre-pube. They feel less mired, and more simply engaged, in an intense emotional landscape. When I saw him play last he had a clean new haircut and blew copious kisses to the crowd.
“In the Lost and Found (Honky Bach)” is the album’s best love song, what with its infectious country-ditty piano, jealousy-(on my part!)-inspiring plea “Don’t go home Angelina/Stay with me, hanging around in the lost and found,” and its calm announcement “I’m alone, that’s okay, I don’t mind/Most of the time/I don’t feel afraid to die,” which makes me shiver it sounds so serious. The fast-paced “Son of Sam” is edgy and catchy; the quieter “Easy Way Out” is a muted fuck-you, contemplative rather than turbulent. Figure 8 firmly establishes Elliott Smith as a multidirectional composer and an even bigger fox than I’d originally thought: The transition from the critically acclaimed XO to Figure 8 shows him breaking out of the niche that each previous album had cemented in place.
“How the world perceives me is not my problem,” he told Eric Stoltz when the actor united them under the rubric of the “sensitive young artist” myth. And about the patchwork quilts and pillows I imagined he sewed and sold (a nod to his early folkiness?): As he told the L.A. Times in 1998, “It’s good if you can understand what your dream meant, but whether you do or not, it’s having an effect on you. And on a certain level, you do understand what it’s about. It’s very important. People that can’t fall asleep and dream go crazy.”