366 Songs 075: Between The Bars

This was, maybe, the second Elliott Smith song I ever heard? Maybe the third – I might have heard “Ballad of Big Nothing” before this one. This was, nonetheless, the one that cemented by love of Smith, in large part thanks to the way that his voice cracks as he tries to reach the right notes of the chorus (The “Pee-ple” that always seems a little out of his reach) that sounded just right to the broken hearted boy that I was back then. It helps that it’s also just a beautiful song, of course, but I know without a second’s hesitation that the performance and not the material of this one was what made me a believer.

It’s a song that sounds so fragile, you expect it to burst like a bubble midway through; the delicate double-tracked acoustic guitar finger-picked, the mumbled vocals and broken, romantic lyrics (“The people you’ve been before/That you don’t want around anymore/That push, and shove, and won’t bend to your will/I’ll keep them still”), all adding to make it as much a confession of love and vulnerability as much as a song.

It’s so complete in and of itself that the “orchestral version” that appeared on the Good Will Hunting soundtrack sounds like a mess in comparison, despite a lovely string arrangement; with the echoed vocal and strong, sweeping strings, it sounds too syrup-y and unsubtle in comparison with the original.

Worse still, Madeline Peyroux’s cover, which attempts to recast the whole thing as some kind of Tom Waits-influenced torch song, and just misses the mark, becoming the dirge that the original so barely avoided. There’s an interesting interpretation somewhere in here, but this version just… isn’t it. It’s a shame; there are good ideas, and Peyroux’s a great vocalist, but this entirely misses the mark. Sometimes, the simple, straight-forward ideas are the best.

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