366 Songs 156: Son of Sam

Also from Elliott Smith’s Figure 8, also great: Son of Sam, which ends up with a lovely piano line but apparently started as something entirely guitar-based; this was originally released as a “demo version” of the song:

And here’s the final, album version with the piano taking the place of the guitar:

First off: The finished version really gains something from the piano, doesn’t it? Not that it wasn’t a great song before – It clearly was/is, not least of all because of the lyrics, which feature amongst some of Smith’s best; I’ll get back to that in a second – but the piano adds not just a fragility and variation in aural color, but also the greatness of the honky-tonk piano moment that happens after “King for a day” at 1:42.

Secondly, back to those lyrics: I love the creepiness inherent in the song, embedded deep in lines like “I’m not uncomfortable being weird/Long revered options disappear/But I know what to do” and “Acting under orders from above,” but the surrender as the song closes is a lovely piece of taking one common thing and turning it into something much less comfortable (As if naming the song after a serial killer wasn’t hint enough): “I may talk in my sleep tonight/Cause I don’t know what I am/I’m a little like you/More like the son of Sam,” followed by a “ahhhhh,ahhhh, ahhhh” breath out/pop note moment that’s just a little bit more unsettling because of where it ended up.

Here’s to being not uncomfortable, being weird.

366 Songs 155: Stupidity Tries

This just in from the “Lovely little pop songs that sometimes get lost in the reputation of their creators” department. 2000’s Figure 8 is, looking back on it, a strange album for Elliott Smith; it’s the only one, for example, that doesn’t include a cuss word anywhere on it, and also the one where he’s at his most obviously “produced,” for want of a better way to put it. Because of that, I’ve tended to think of it in my head as his “pop” album, which both is – It was created with the intent of “crossing over” and building on the success of XO, after all – and isn’t – Smith was never really not pop, if you listen to his music and hear his influences and obvious gift for melody – true.

Nonetheless, “Stupidity Tries” is a great pop song, one that mixes subtle arrangement (At 1:11, the lovely use of horns, softening the moment even though there aren’t any horns anywhere else in the song, and get replaced with pedal steel when the moment recurs at 2:21; the strings that provide structure and grace, lifting from the guitars at 3:23 and take the song home from there) and wonderfully… Smithian lyrics (“The enemy/is within/Don’t confuse/me with him”) to come up with something that could only be more delicious if it didn’t fade out at the end. I mean, seriously people: You can even hear it finish really quietly before the fade’s done. You couldn’t just have let that happen…?

Also lovely: Smith’s live versions of the song, which ditch the more elaborate orchestration for something more Beatles-rocking-out-y:

366 Songs 079: Happiness

The first time I heard this song, I barely heard this song. I was teaching – this was back when I was trying to do that, not having any idea whether or not I was doing any good or not – and trying to make a point of staying in studios that were listening to Radio 1 because Elliott Smith was doing a live session on the Jo Whiley show and was apparently going to perform a song he hadn’t recorded yet. How could I miss that, I thought, ignoring the fact that I was working and should’ve done that, instead. I can’t even remember who I was talking to as the song was performed (so new, he said, that it didn’t even have a name yet), just that I was trying to say things that were supportive and helpful while playing as little attention to them because my ears were focused elsewhere, on this pretty, fragile plea that was far more honest and universal than I could make out at the time.

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.

366 Songs 059: Trouble (2)

I have no history with Cat Stevens; somehow, he’d passed me by entirely in all of my musical journeys with the exception of a cover of his “Father and Son” that managed to upset me enough with one particular lyric (“Find a girl, settle down/Pretty soon now, you’ll be married”) that I stayed away from any temptation that might’ve led me to explore further. And then, years later, I heard this:

In terms of performance, it’s not Elliott Smith’s finest hour in the slightest; he sounds very out of it, all the rumors about his condition prior to his death swirling around in his sullen, slurred vocals. But the melody, the sparseness of it and the darkness of the lyrics, appealed to me enough that I went searching for the original, and… It’s actually right up my alley.

Clearly, I find sadness far too attractive when it comes to these kinds of songs, because this is a dark, defeated song filled with enough inference and vagueness as to allow the listener to define the “trouble” any way they want; one of the problems I have with the Elliott Smith version is, I think, that the way he sounds, his “trouble” overpowers other readings. But the original has a… lightness, perhaps, isn’t the right word, but there’s space to breathe and insert yourself that I find inviting. It’s not misery, but melancholy, and that’s an important difference for me. My sad songs must have a glimpse of hope, or else they’re too claustrophobic and upsetting.

366 Songs 052: Say Yes

Ignoring the fact that this is one of the sweetest songs ever recorded – and made all the moreso, in my opinion, by the fact that it’s not overly saccharine or simplistic; “It’s always been/ Wait and see/A happy day/And then you pay/And feel like shit/The morning after” is a lovely little section, embracing the ambivalence of relationships in the same way as “I didn’t know/I’d be around/The morning after” – with a simple and lovely little tune, what truly stole my heart while hearing “Say Yes” by Elliott Smith for the first time was the bridge that starts at 1:32, with the doubletracked vocal splitting in two while another dub comes in (To my ears, at least, there are three vocals by this point, but I may be wrong) and the vocal melody just… I want to say unfolds, but that’s wrong and there’s probably a million different, more correct, ways to put it. Nonetheless, hearing the voices rise and fall with the ridiculously emo but still affecting lines “I’m damaged/Bad at best/She’ll decide what she wants” pretending to offer nonchalantness in the face of relationship uncertainty and optimism is the kind of thing that really gets to me, being the wuss I am (“I’ll probably be the last to know/No-one says until it shows/See how it is/They want you or they don’t,” followed by the simple, honest “Say yes.” Oh, man, I’m a mushy mess already).

Also worth pointing out: This song contains the one piece of lyrical advice I try to remember at all bad times. “Situations get fucked up/But turned around, sooner or later.” I’m always counting on that latter half.

366 Songs 022: See You in Heaven

Out of all the unreleased-but-leaked material that’s appeared since Elliott Smith’s death, “See You in Heaven” may be one of my favorites, but also one of the most frustrating. Unlike so much of his work, there’s something undeniably uplifting about the instrumental – And, because there are sleigh bells so high in the mix, something so Christmassy, to me at least – and there’s a dynamism to the whole thing that really appeals to me, feeling more like an off-cut from Figure 8 than the other material that he was working on before his death (I think that From A Basement On The Hill is a great album, and has some of my favorite production and arrangements of any of his work, but this just feels different, somehow). It’s unfinished nature makes it feel like a song that archaeologists can use to pick through and find the bones of his songwriting technique, to make a strange and uncomfortable metaphor; the spaces left behind are open to suspect and supposition about what could’ve gone there, what’s missing from it, and why certain choices were made. There are parts that feel very… undone (The building tension from 0:56 to 1:23 almost works, but it’s missing something), and parts that feel revelatory, things that are just lovely but you can tell would’ve been hidden more in a final version (The way the music just tumbles and lurches into the bride at 2:53, for example), and therein lies the frustration, because we’ll never know what the song was “supposed” to sound like. There is, according to Elliott Smith legend, a “finished” version of this song, with lyrics and a more completed arrangement with more overdubs, that exists somewhere, but it’s never been leaked and at this point, more than half a decade after his death, it probably never will. That’s maybe a good thing, ultimately; the unfinished nature of the “See You in Heaven” that we have allows the song to be hopeful and optimistic to those who want it to sound like that, and everything that’s not there can be created by our imaginations, giving us one last chance to interact with Smith and his weird, wonderful way of songwriting.

366 Songs 004: Sweet Adeline

Probably the first of many Elliott Smith songs to appear across the next year, this song’s been in my head for some reason recently that I can’t quite put my finger on. It’s the opening track of XO, his second last/third last album depending on whether or not you count the posthumous From A Basement on The Hill (I do, for what little it’s worth; it’s got a lot of my favorite Elliott Smith moments on it, even though it’s haunting and heartbreaking and magically charged in all manner of weird ways that I still feel a little uncomfortable with), and I’m never quite sure whether or not I consider it a full song or just a smart and somewhat funny musical trick to introduce people to the musical mindset of the album.

It opens, after all, like all manner of earlier Elliott Smith songs, finger-picking and melancholy lyrics (“Cut this picture into you and me/Burn it backwards, kill this history” being the opening lines, which are the kind of thing that feel very Smithian, at once personal and universal because who hasn’t felt that kind of sadness and grief at the end of a relationship?), but after the second verse, the song explodes into… a full band, perhaps? But no, not really; it explodes into a full arrangement, perhaps, with the bridge – There’s no chorus to this song, hence me wondering at times whether it’s a full song or not; it goes verse/verse/bridge/verse – before fading back into something quieter and sadder for the final verse. But it’s that explosion that’s the wonderful thing, a surprise if you’ve never heard the song before but every other time from then, the release of pressure that you can feel build up until that point (The mellotron quietly coming in on the second verse!)… I’m not synaesthetic, but the way the bridge just opens into the drums, the piano, the bass always makes me think of a timelapse sequence of a flower blooming, before withering and dying, or a firework exploding. Something lovely but temporary, and gone so quickly that you can’t even really remember what it was like properly by the time you’ve realized what had happened.