But It’s Brilliant Anyway

It was a tradition that happened every July 4, for a number of years: My putting on Elliott Smith’s “Independence Day” in the morning, and enjoying the repeated “Everybody knows,” as if it’s some kind of mantra that completed the day the same way that Christmas only truly becomes real when I’ve listened to Low’s “Just Like Christmas” or Slade’s “Merry Xmas Everybody.”

It’s not a song that’s actually about July 4, of course; the only one of those I can actually think of comes from Holiday Inn, a genuinely wonderful song with at least one genuinely terrible moment of cringeworthy racism: The blackface number, “Abraham,” which also happens to be one of the most catchy songs of the entire movie.  But nonetheless, “Independence Day” became something that I did for years every July 4, just for myself. A newly created tradition I gave to myself when I arrived in the States and enjoyed the day for the first time, and the following years. A way to make the holiday mine, as opposed to finding it off-putting and alien.

(As someone who came to the States, the patriotism displayed on July 4, or at other specific times and situations, can be disorienting and confusing, if not accidentally disturbing and/or hilarious.)

This year, I listened to it again. The first time in years, as it happened; it felt like something I needed to do, a promise to myself fulfilled. I didn’t realize how much it meant to me until I heard that “Everybody knows, everybody knowseverybody knows,” with the harmonies gliding in, once again.

“If I Seem To Be Reckless With Myself, It’s The Fault of No-One”

My iPhone delivered “Little One” when I wasn’t expecting it the other day, the first time I’d listened to the song in years, most likely. From A Basement on The Hill, the posthumous album the song comes from, was one of those totem albums for me for a few years around its release — something I listened to obsessively in the weeks after its release, then hid from for awhile because it felt too weird, too raw to hear following the death of my mother, before returning to with renewed obsession months later. But listening to “Little One” the other day, it was like hearing it anew, noticing all those thing my Elliott Smith worship had kept me from hearing first time(s) around.

It’s one of those songs that was clearly far from finished at the time of his death; it’s not just the shaky vocal — complete with what had to have been temporary lyrics at points (The “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven” line, obviously, but the entire thing seems more disjointed lyrically than songs from his earlier, finished albums. “Even though some can’t sleep/They’ll need some company” rings false, needing a second draft, for me) — but the fact that tracks seem to drop in and out of the music, as well (especially in the lead up to the bridge, for some reason).

Despite all that, though, it’s maybe the most Beatles-y sounding song Smith ever made, with the possible exception of “A Distorted Reality Is A Necessity To Be Free” from the same album, with its guitar line that sounds as if George Harrison dropped in during recording. But this song, though — the heaviness of the bassline, the way it plods along, or the backwards guitar that’s weaves in and out of the whole thing. The imprecision of the backing vocals, as well, adds to the Beatles-ishness of the whole thing.

There’s a melancholy at play that I can’t properly place, Beatles-wise — there’s some Harrison in there, definitely, but I keep wanting to lean Lennon, for some reason. It’s the thing that truly separates this from the Beatles, for me, though; even in their darkest moments, there was some light there to be found, but “Little One” just sounds like the end, a sad and slow surrender that doesn’t finish as much as ebb away. On an album filled with troublesome moments, this remains the most painful of all of the songs to hear, even moreso because of that last line, hearing “I love you” as a final goodbye.

This Time, We Can’t Lose

I read, awhile back, that today is the tenth anniversary of the death of Elliott Smith. I’ve written (many times) before about how much I love Smith’s music; I found it around the time that XO was released, at which point his combination of melancholy, melody and devotion to both the Beatles and Big Star seemed tailor made for me. I saw him live once, during his tour promoting Figure 8, and he was everything I wanted him to be — passionate, loud and funny, and with a band that could convincingly bring his music to life in a way that translated the things I adored so much in the recordings.

Up through his death, he was a figure that was amazingly important to me — my go-to answer if someone had asked me who my favorite musician was, and someone that I listened to constantly, much to the complaints of Kate, who didn’t like the sound of his voice. These days, I listen far less often; there was a point the other week when “Kings Crossing” from From A Basement On The Hill came on the shuffle of my iPhone, and I realized that it’d been months since I’d last listened to him. I’m not sure if it’s that I’m no longer in the kind of emotional place that he resonates so deeply, that I’ve simply moved on for other reasons, or something else, but I felt guilty when I realized how long it had been.

Nonetheless, Elliott Smith remains someone whose work is endlessly essential to me on some core level. His way around melody, harmony and lyrical ambiguity is something I treasure still, and wish that others would be able to play with as effortlessly as he made it look. If only he’d had a happier life, and was still around.

366 Songs 365: Coming Up Roses

A song that’s beautiful in a particularly ugly, self-aware and urban sense (“The moon is a sickle cell/It’ll kill you in time”), “Coming Up Roses” was the soundtrack to a particularly weird and unhealthy post-break-up period of my life way back when, and its apathetic shuffle and broken-hearted poetry felt particularly apt at the time for the person I was back then. To me now, there’s a lot of nostalgia and memory wrapped up in it, but it feels like a nascent, incomplete version of everything that Elliott Smith would come to embody in later life. There’s a hint of his use of harmony vocals and surprising melody, but the only thing that I have think of when I think of Smith now that’s truly there in this song is the fragility. There’s a sense that this song is a promise of what lies ahead, but one so barely-there that it could burst at any second like a bubble floating around in the air, waiting to disappear.

366 Songs 315: Coast to Coast

“I’ve got no new act to amuse you.”

Constructed from partially-finished tapes left over after his suicide, it’s against all odds that From A Basement on The Hill would be my favorite Elliott Smith album, but it is; whether it’s the arrangements that Smith intended (Apparently unlikely, according to friends who worked on the recording) or something that was made by those assembling the recordings afterwards, the whole album has a great sound that’s surprisingly all the work of Smith himself on the different instruments. “Coast to Coast” is one of the best example of this, from the slow fade-in (Complete with half-hearted drum beats before the whole thing kicks into action) to the fade-out, with a piano – definitely originally intended for a different track, because that one’s been leaked – plays out, slowly, softly against a poet rambling in the background and a recording of Smith, satisfied with what’s just happened and defiant, says “That’s right.” It sounds not just like a full band, but like a great band, one who’ve been practicing together for years and want to sound like the great lost sixties garage band. When I say that I’m saddened for what we didn’t get from Smith because of his death, it’s stuff like this I mean. It’s one thing that he had an amazing gift for melody – and he really did – but the way he approached building song arrangements and picking and choosing from the past yet making it sound contemporary… That was something I truly found unique about him.

366 Songs 314: Waltz #2 (XO)

This was the first Elliott Smith song I ever heard, I think; definitely the first one I remember hearing, although I suspect that I might’ve seen Good Will Hunting before this and just not really noticed the music because I was too busy being bored by everything else. Nonetheless, I heard this at one of those times in your life when you need to hear someone say something that feels real to you, and you end up attaching almost mystical significance to it as a result. Here, it’s the chorus: “I’m never gonna know you now/But I’m gonna love you, anyhow.” It’s a surrender and declaration at once, of saying goodbye to someone special and yet holding onto them in your heart, something that was entirely what I was going through at the time in my own, melodramatic, way.

As much as the lyrics worked for me, though, the rest of the song more than piqued my interest. You can still hear a lot of what appealed in the live, stripped back version above, with the pretty, circular music in the verse and the raw, striving bridge – not just in the lyric (“I’m here today/And expected to stay on/And on, and on/I’m tired, I’m tired…”) but the performance, as the voice strains to hit the notes and sounds more fragile as a result (It helps that the lyrics almost immediately seek to comfort, as if embarrassed by what just happened: “XO, Mom/It’s okay, it’s alright/Nothing’s wrong”).

The recorded version, too, has an arrangement that pulled me in with echoes of Big Star and the Beatles – Ringo thudding out a waltz time beat on the drums, but a piano line that sounds straight out of Third/Sister Lovers:

The background vocals help the overall effect, as well; there was obviously a mind here that was more interested in music as a continuity, of a lengthy past instead of whatever was hip at the time – Listen to the backing “do do do“s during that bridge, or the multiple “on/And on, and on“s; the strings sneaking in at the end just added to that feeling.

It’s a beautiful song, and a beautifully complete one. When I heard it, I was hooked, and I knew I had to hear more.

366 Songs 296: Satellite

There’s a rawness to all of the songs on Elliott Smith, his second (of six) albums, in part because of the recording process – the songs on the album are all self-recorded onto (I think) a six-track, and you can hear the amateur quality in the hiss that surrounds the entire thing, and is most audible as the song finishes. It’s there, too, in the lyrics, though: “And for all you know you’re the only one who finds it strange/When they call it a lover’s moon/The satellite,” as if you’re listening to outsider art made mumbling beauty. This is a wonderfully simple, wonderfully intimate song, so short and unstructured that it feels more like poetry put to music, a sketch of a feeling, rather than any kind of finished music. Like most of Smith’s earliest output, that briefness is a lot of the appeal to “Satellite”; the unrehearsed, unfinished quality that makes it easier to feel as if you’re seeing inside someone’s heart, whether it was true or otherwise.

366 Songs 233: I Figured You Out

Dismissed by Elliott Smith as a “silly pop song” that he wrote in five minutes and discarded, “I Figured You Out” becomes something different in the hands of Mary Lou Lord; it’s both lighter in tone – Lord’s vocals lack the flatness and melancholy of Smith’s, after all – and somehow more sad as a result. There’s a wistfulness and vulnerability in her voice that makes the whole thing seem more harsher, as if she’s less prepared to sing lines like “So go on and pick up/You don’t care what poison you choose/What person you use/Should’ve been me, yeah/Shouldn’t it be?”

Sadness always sounds worse coming from an unexpected source.

366 Songs 222: Ballad of Big Nothing

I’ve written elsewhere, I’m sure, that “Ballad of Big Nothing” is the first time that Elliott Smith actually wrote a song as opposed to a particularly beautiful note to someone (even if that someone was himself); there’s something particularly structured about this song from his Either/Or album that feels complete in a way that earlier efforts didn’t. Perhaps it’s the traditional structure (Is this the first solo song he did that has a separate verse and chorus? That can’t be right…), or the fact that the instrumentation seems to go beyond “Elliott and his guitar and maybe some double tracking,” but this always felt like more of a song song than I’d expected from him, and I find myself with amazing affection for it.

Lyrically, it’s as sharp as ever (“All spit and spite/You’re up all night/And down everyday” is a great description of someone filled with self-loathing, I think), and is delivered with more passion than usual; it feels like the closest Smith had come to Dylan by that point, and may have been the song that convinced some that he had it in him to become a star. He didn’t, of course, and while trying didn’t kill him, it definitely didn’t help him stave off his sadly, seemingly inevitable, end. To this day, I still miss him and wonder what else he could have gone on to do.

(This entry was initially “Between The Bars,” by Elliott Smith, until I realized I’d actually previously written about that song. What was here has been edited into the original entry I wrote, which you can find here.)

366 Songs 169: Independence Day

Another song that has little to do with the holiday it’s named for, but it’s been tradition for me ever since I arrived in the US a decade ago that I’d listen to this song on July 4 nonetheless. Clearly, I just like the train-like drums, or the electric piano making this sound like it belongs in the 1970s, as well as the “ah-ah” harmonies in the back, and the wistfulness of Elliott Smith’s “Everybody knows/Everybody knows/Everybody knows/That you only live a day/But it’s brilliant anyway.”

Everybody knows.