This is a reworking/rewriting of something I did back on the much-missed Noise To Signal on this same anniversary a few years back. I’m reposting it here, a decade since Elliott died, as a further tribute, and with some updated music links to enjoy…

Elliott Smith: August 6, 1969 – October 21, 2003

On 22nd October 2003, I was sitting in my college library browsing the internet when I saw a surprising headline on BBC News. The singer/songwriter Steven Paul “Elliott” Smith had been found dead in his apartment a day earlier, of two stab wounds to the chest, at the age of 34. At the time, I’d only really heard one or two of Elliott’s albums in full, and only owned one – 2000’s Figure 8. Despite this, it had been an integral enough influence on my taste and listening habits during my post-adolescent period, and featured certain songs that had been such a comfort during a difficult period I was going through in that latter half of 2003, that I was genuinely saddened by this death for reasons beyond the unutterably tragic circumstances in which they occurred.

It’s something of a cliché that the death of an artist is one of the best things that can happen to their record sales – and I didn’t particularly want to be part of that vulture-like culture. Nevertheless, I felt sufficiently guilty about never having fully explored his music while he was alive – and sufficiently moved by the circumstances of his life and death, the more I read about him – that I felt an obligation to further delve into the work of someone who’d already meant a surprising amount to me. What I discovered was that Elliott’s music – both as written and as performed – has the ability to reach inside and pull at the fabric of my soul like just about no-one else I’ve ever heard. As such, for getting on for nine years now, his songs have taken on greater and greater importance in my life.

It’s not like he was the most groundbreaking or influential musician. In truth, that side of him was relatively simple. He had two distinct phases, each preferred to differing degrees by various sections of his fanbase – his earlier albums were pure, stripped-down, one-man-and-his-guitar acoustic stylings; whereas a shift in the late ’90s saw him move towards a more Beatlesy, pop-influenced sound that took in all manner of arrangements and instrumentation (including using piano, rather than guitar, as the driving force behind a good number of his songs). While it’s probably heresy among the majority of Smith’s fans to say it, for the most part I actually prefer the more complex sound of these later albums – he had a superb knack for constructing harmony, for layering his sound, and this is most evident on what I’ve long thought is his masterpiece, 1998’s XO. At the same time, mind, it could just as easily be argued (and it’s something I’ve come around to more in recent years) that his purest and most perfect songwriting was to be found on the last “acoustic” album, Either/Or. In both eras, though, his strongest sense was one of melody – with particular emphasis on transitions, apparently his favourite part of any song.

I finally got to make the pilgrimage to the Elliott tribute wall, at Solutions Audio in Los Angeles, in December 2009. The extensive graffiti (not all of it, sadly, fan tributes) has since been painted over.

What really made Elliott’s records stand out, though, were his vocals. He had a beautiful, delicate voice, memorably described as “spiderweb-thin” – and yet had little to no confidence in it whatsoever. Ironically enough, though, this self-doubt would lead to one of the most distinctive elements of his sound – unconvinced of his voice’s ability to carry songs on its own, he would frequently multi-track it, creating gorgeous layered harmonies. This is perhaps most evident on his stunning cover of the Beatles’ “Because”, featured on the closing credits of American Beauty (and one of the only examples I can think of where someone’s covered a Lennon/McCartney song and improved it), or on Figure 8’s “Everything Means Nothing To Me”, with its repeated yet ever-building refrain. It’s the voice, more than anything, that gets inside me like a piece of grit in my heart – certain moments in his songs will bring me out in goosebumps, or even spark an involuntary tear on occasion.

It’s easy enough, if you’re being simplistic, to write Elliott’s songs off as “music to slit your wrists to”. But there’s so much more to it than that. Yes, his lyrics were extremely dark at times, reflecting his own life and personal demons. And yes, there’s something deeply melancholy about much of his distinctive sound – the combination of near-exclusive use of minor chords and that heart-rending voice. But it’s a good kind of melancholy. Some music that people would think of as “depressing” is just that – but Elliott’s was more comforting. Perhaps it was that he would, like Morrissey, dress up such dark lyrics in such appealing tunes (minor key or no minor key), but while you may listen to his music when you’re feeling sad, you don’t necessarily do it to wallow or be melodramatic. There can be beauty, and a strange sort of contentment, in sadness – and whether intentionally or otherwise, I think that’s something Elliott’s music frequently encapsulated.

It’s true that if you just don’t “get” Elliott, you probably never will. But I wonder just how many people are only aware of him as “that depressed singer-songwriter who killed himself” (if they know even that), and who would be genuinely surprised to discover what a beautiful, engaging and downright classic body of work he produced in his all-too-short career. The purpose of my writing this, then, is twofold – firstly, to pay tribute to someone I feel is a genuine great, whose music has genuinely either helped me or just struck a chord at certain times, and who I feel is a tragic loss to the world; and secondly, in the hope that some of you who may pay any kind of attention to what I’m talking about might be inspired to go and check out some of his work, and make a similar discovery of your own. To that end, I leave you with a selection of songs and performances drawn from across his back catalogue…

Miss Misery (Good Will Hunting soundtrack, 1997)

Waltz #2 (XO) (XO, 1998)

No Name #3 (Roman Candle, 1994)

Angeles (Either/Or, 1997)

Stupidity Tries (Figure 8, 2000)

Suicide Machine (unreleased)

Pretty (Ugly Before) (From A Basement On The Hill, 2004)

Coming Up Roses (Elliott Smith, 1995)

Because (American Beauty soundtrack, 1999)

Say Yes (Either/Or, 1997)

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