Since we started the web site, dealing especially with alternative rock music, there were certain figures and groups that we felt needed to be included on here. We felt we needed at least an article that would serve as a nod to their great work and the admiration we have towards them. The trouble, of course, is that in many cases the careers of these artists is so monumental that an article of a few hundred words does not seem to do justice to their wonderful work. It’s the case with personal heroes ranging from Bad Brains, Dinosaur J., The Clash, Death Grips, Patti Smith, Pavement and so on.
This is the case with Elliot Smith, also. His music is incredible and in it’s earnestness is it’s own advocate, almost seeming to have no need for anyone to add any critical judgement to it. The influence of his music on musicians is also quite clear (although the case can be made that the role of the singer songwriter has changed dramatically in the last years by the music industry). There are tribute shows throughout the world, cover songs and a movie about his. And most of the articles dealing with Smith’s music put a large emphasis on the sadness that is generally accepted would have been a large part of his everyday life.
Because of this, I am taking the opportunity to simply list a few (of the many) great Elliott Smith songs. I’d like to mention the admiration I personally have for him and that his catalog of songs is representative of what we would like alt77 to promote. That seems like a good enough reason for this article.
But attempting to write something short that would fit into the format of this web site is also very difficult. I would say (for myself) that even listening to his music, as much as I love it, is difficult. It sometimes almost feels like intruding.
Most musicians, of whatever style they happen to represent, are conscious of the format that they are working in. They are also conscious of the fact that they hope their music will be listened to by a large group of people. And so their words and sounds are tailored, sometimes in small, other times in large measure, to fit to the expectations of their audiences. This is not at all times an exercise in cynicism, but rather the artist, as anyone else, chooses how much they want to reveal of themselves. Rock n’ roll after all has a large array of heroes posing as cool, villainous, strange. Make believe characters. And that’s fine.
With Elliott Smith, it seems almost as if he had no control over editing his music so that it would not contain so much of his most personal thoughts. Even when the words are not telling a story that is easy to decipher, the vocal delivery and the music give it the same still make it feel very personal. It’s like someone telling you a secret, whether you like to hear it or not.
Elliott Smith’s music is often compared to that of Nick Drake. The word most used in reviews and articles to describe their music is “sad”. There is of course an undeniable tinge of melancholy and sadness to it. That can’t be entirely denied. Furthermore, Smith’s tribulations during his life time and his eventual fate are quite famous and there is no need to go over those here. But I think that this feeling of melancholy that everybody seems to mention about Smith and Drake, comes through especially since it feels shocking that (popular) music can be so direct and personal. there seems to be very little altered from the initial version of a song. Someone perhaps being too honest for their own good.
A lot of the most famous rock music deals with themes of sorrow, loss and regret. Most of heavy rock music deals with darker topics. So does blues music and a lot of country and western. There is a part of ethnic music in practically every region of the world, that focuses on those topics. Yet that is not the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of those genres. The topic of the music only seems to make it more serious minded.
It’s odd that “sadness” would be the go to word when speaking of Elliott Smith. After all, he was far from being a one trick pony. Most of his songs feature incredibly beautiful, almost saccharine melodies. Smith was a big fan of the Beatles and often covered songs by them. Also, he was not a singer-songwriter in the classic sense. He was the singer of Heatmiser (and I am aware that the band’s name in itself somewhat trumps my theory) an alternative/indie rock band. He also played many instruments and handled most of the recording duties on several of his albums. Smith experimented with a variety of recording techniques. And when critics seemed to have his style pinned down, he made a conscious decision to change and evolve his sound.
Elliott Smith’s music is beautiful and brutal. The largely acoustic songs and soft sung words do in fact pack as much of a punch as any of the grunge and alt metal groups that were his contemporaries. So much so, that I have a hard time listening to it, while I do admire it a great deal. This article is only a small reminder of Elliott Smith’s great music.
Image source: www.spin.com