Elliott Smith’s Most Overlooked Songs

I always said Either/Or is one of my top 10 albums of all time. The sad thing is I can’t listen to it anymore, it’s too hard. I’ll put it on and my mind just starts thinking of things that I don’t want to think about while listening to a record I love.

-Scott Booker

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Steven Paul “Elliott” Smith died ten years ago today.  In remembrance, here’s an overview of some of his most overlooked songs:

Roman Candle

Keep in mind that when this was written Kurt Cobain was still alive and the future of “grunge” was wide-open. Sure, the term itself was already played out but there was a sensibility to that era of songwriting that – radio friendly unit shifters aside – held promise to develop in unforeseen directions. Elliott initially came across as the singer-songwriter branch of that possibility, and never more so than on this track. Recorded as a demo with the hopes of perhaps landing him a solo deal for a 7″ (his pre-fame group Heatmiser was still his main musical focus), Elliott announced his break from the band with an intense profile of his abusive step father. Winding the lyrics into a hallucinatory section that emotionally retraces the pains of his childhood:

He played himself
Didn’t need me to give him hell
He could be cool and cruel to you and me
Knew we’d put up with anything

I want to hurt him
I want to give him pain
I’m a Roman candle
My head is full of flames

Clementine

Elliott’s first solo album was technically Roman Candle, a collection of demos recorded in his girlfriend’s basement that unexpectedly became a set for public release after Smith relented to label requests (nearly half the tracks didn’t even have titles and were labeled “No Name #1,” “No Name #2” etc). For this reason many fans think of his eponymous second album as his real debut – as it’s the first record he made as “an album.” That doesn’t mean the production differed much though. To the contrary Elliott Smith is memorable for its simple recording approach, mostly acoustic guitar and double tracked vocals. This stark approach defines standouts such as “Clementine,” which offset haunting harmony vocals and dissonant licks with a rich acoustic guitar sound and a sense of perfect symmetry. In just a few couplets Elliott paints not just a picture of a bar at closing time, but also a portrait of a man’s inner turmoil from nagging memories of a love gone sour:

They’re waking you up to close the bar
The street’s wet you can tell by the sound of the cars
The bartender’s singing “Clementine”
While he’s turning around the open sign

Dreadful sorry Clementine
Though you’re still her man
It seems a long time gone
Maybe the whole thing’s wrong

What if she thinks so but just didn’t say so?

You drank yourself into slo-mo
Made an angel in the snow…

Oh my darling Clementine

St. Ides Heaven

Nobody could do moody melancholy like Elliott.

The second of two songs on his eponymous 1995 album named after a liquor brand, Smith tells you exactly how he feels when he’s walking “around here drunk every night with an open container from 7-11 in St. Ides Heaven.” Elliott often sang about the moon, but arguably never more vividly than in his description of how he sees the sky when his head is “full of stars, high on amphetamines” on this album standout’s hypnotic refrain:

the moon is a light bulb breaking.

Division Day

There was a grown man dying from fright so surprised by the things he’d say
With a giant fantasy life running ’round on feet of clay

A stand alone 7″ from the same year as his acclaimed Either/ Or (and his mainstream breakthrough via the Goodwill Hunting soundtrack), “Division Day” ups the rock quotient and production in equal measure. Don’t let the pep and pop fool you though. What really makes it one of the defining indie rock singles of the late ’90s is its flowing melody and gripping lyrics:

I can’t make an exception for a bad
Connection that only goes one way
Sell out for a song where I don’t belong
With you on division day

Independence Day

A future butterfly, gonna spend the day higher than high
You’ll be a beautiful confusion...”

With the sort of twisted chord sequence John Lennon might write, this track (from Smith’s major label debut XO) showcases Smith’s knack for enigmatic lyrics. To some it’s about recognizing your own beauty. To others it’s a drug song. Then again maybe it’s an innocent YOLO anthem:

Everybody knows you only live a day
But it’s brilliant anyway…

Coast to Coast

There are numerous accounts of the troubles Smith faced the last three years of his life.  At the same time however he was creating his most ambitious work for a planned double album, From a Basement on a Hill. Often brooding with hints of psychedelia and steeped in Smith’s most Beatlesque tendencies, Basement was left unfinished at the time of his death. Friends and family tidied what Smith left behind for a posthumous single disc released in 2004. Opener “Coast to Coast” – with its noisey guitars and layers of trippy piano and voices – announced loud and clear this was a bold departure from the soft singer-songwriter-isms of his signature songs. Driving the point was the double drum track, a different drummer in each speaker via Steven Drozd and Beachwood Sparks’ Aaron Sperske.

I met Elliott in ’96,” Steven recalls to Pitchfork. “I was on that Sebadoh tour with Those Bastard Souls. I was very intimidated by him when I first met him….We ended up doing some shows in Sweden together with Elliott playing with his full band around ’99. I was in pretty bad shape at that point, but we just really hit it off, and next thing I knew we were getting drunk and playing acoustic guitars on his tour bus, driving through Sweden.”  Steven adds about recording “Coast to Coast” years later in Los Angeles, “we just set up the two drum kits and played at the same time. I know that you can be a highly functioning drug addict depending on what drugs you’re getting into, but to me, it didn’t seem like he was affected at all. He was fucking in charge of the session. People think I played drums all over that record, but it really just ended up being one song.”

We just set up the two drum kits and played at the same time,” Steven recalls. “I know that you can be a highly functioning drug addict depending on what drugs you’re getting into, but to me, it didn’t seem like he was affected at all. He was fucking in charge of the session.”

In a 2003 interview with Under the Radar Smith explained, “I asked this friend of mine to make up something he could say as fast as he could in fifteen minutes about people healing themselves or being unable to heal themselves,” Elliott explained to Radar. “While he’s saying this thing there is a main vocal that goes over that.”

That friend was Nelson Gary, who befriended Smith in his final days and helped make the final album. He recounted his experiences at length at lummoxpress/journal:

Originally, the song [“Coast to Coast”] was called “Circuit Rider.” A circuit rider is a preacher who goes from coast to coast, spreading the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ. Elliott had read more of my journalism than poetry, but he had read some of it and appreciated it. He told me that for several albums he had wanted poetry—not just spoken word and definitely not rap—to be part of one of his songs, but he had not found someone living whose work he liked enough until me.

He also explained to me that the circuit rider, who the song is about, is in love with two women. The circuit rider feels extraordinary guilty and depressed with his heart severed in two, but he is also elated with the amount of love he shares with these women. We had this conversation without Val in our company. He confessed to me that the song’s central complexity of emotions was autobiographical. Rather excitedly, he informed me that what was to become From a Basement on the Hill was going to be a concept album about this subject to the same degree as Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band falls into that category. He told me that most of my words would be indecipherable, but even still, it was an honor to compose “Exile in Paradise’s Tourmaline” for him… Elliott played the song on acoustic guitar for me behind the mixing board before I stepped into the booth. It was uncharacteristic of anything that I had heard him play on acoustic guitar. There were strong elements of the Stones and the Velvets with a hint of Led Zeppelin to what he played for me, and Elliott later demonstrated in the studio a genius at the mixing board that conjured images of Jimmy Page at work in the same capacity… Listening to “Coast to Coast,” the opening track on the album, I heard then and still do hear the eerie opening of Judgment Day in which the dead rise—their steel coffins creaking open—as well as a more melodic rebuke of DreamWorks than Metal Machine Music by Lou Reed was to his record company at the time. When Elliott starts singing with his ethereal voice, his vocals as always come from the coast on the other side of life. This place is not altogether death. It is the universal loss that we all experience at the moment of birth in the separation from our Divine Parents, the Holy Source of All, when we are exiled from the Great Self and Great Reality and given a name, ego, and too many illusions to count. Yet there are aspects of the material plane that offer convergence, reconciliation, renewal, redemption, and the process of healing. One of them is Elliott Smith’s voice.”

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William Todd Schultz’s new book Torment Saint: The Life of Elliott Smith is recommended for further reading on Elliott, his relationship with Steven Drozd and all of the above songs.

Read an excerpt from the bio below:

Torment Saint excerpt

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