Music » Music Stories & Interviews



Elliott Smith, as seen on the cover of his greatest album, either/or. (courtesy photo)

Elliott Smith gave voice to a generation's quiet desperation

Basically, there are three kinds of songwriters.

The first is the song-poet, someone whose material is driven by lyric content, with musical structures that are interchangeable and meant to serve the words: Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, Chuck D.

The second is the tunesmith, someone who composes clever tunes rife with melodic and harmonic sophistication, but often settles for trite, filler lyrics: Brian Wilson, Paul McCartney, Barry Gibb.

The third is the complete songwriter, someone who treats music and lyrics as equal, inseparable components of a great song. These artists possess an instinctive grasp on the way song elements enhance and amplify each other: John Lennon, Neil Young, Kurt Cobain.

Elliott Smith qualified as the third kind of artist. A composer and multi-instrumentalist with a rare gift for melody, he was never merely a tunesmith. His lyrics always signified something, even when they felt like cryptic puzzles ("He's pleased to meet you underneath the horse/in the cathedral with the glass stained black") or vague diary-speak ("I had tender feelings that you made hard/but it's your heart, not mine, that's scarred"). Like many great artists, Smith was a shy, sensitive individual who used his chosen medium to express what was inexpressible in everyday life.

On October 21, Smith died in his Los Angeles home at the age of 34. The cause of death was a single, apparently self-inflicted stab wound to the chest. In the ensuing days, media conjecture has - to paraphrase one of Smith's best songs - run speed trials standing in place. Some blame Smith's death on an oft-rumored heroin addiction. Some suggest that a troubled childhood in a broken home created a chronic sadness that he could never overcome. And some even speculate that Smith couldn't cope with fame, although his only real brush with stardom had swiftly come and gone five years ago, when he earned an Oscar nomination for his song "Miss Misery," from the film Good Will Hunting. It would be just as logical, and just as inappropriate, to guess that Smith took his life because he hadn't attained a greater degree of stardom. The point is, it's all pointless conjecture.

Smith could be sarcastic, but he rarely settled for cheap irony.
I interviewed Smith in October 2000, while he was touring to support what turned out to be the last album he ever completed: Figure 8. Despite battling an uncooperative phone connection from a tour stop in Scotland, Smith was unfailingly polite and thoughtful.

He explained his approach to songwriting, suggesting that he was more interested in creating a mood than in constructing a linear narrative. "There's no real plan to it," he said. "I like to have a mental picture of what I'm writing about, but I don't usually have a coherent story to my songs."

Smith also complained about being branded a new-generation folkie, simply because he often performed solo on acoustic guitar. As Smith knew, the intricate architecture of his songs shared little with the simplicity of traditional folk music. "To some people, the simple fact that you're playing an acoustic guitar means that it's folk music," he said. "I think that's ridiculous."

Over the course of five solo albums - following a stint in the Portland, Oregon indie-rock band Heatmiser - Smith explored what Alex Chilton could have achieved had Big Star been more than a brief musical interlude. Smith shared the young Chilton's high, mournful vocal timbre, as well as an ability to make emotional turmoil sound gorgeous.

Smith reached an artistic peak with 1997's either/or, one of the finest rock albums of the '90s, and an unmistakable influence on sensitive young singer-songwriters like Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst. It came at the tail end of indie-rock's romance with raw, lo-fi recording, and at the front end of punk's emo phenomenon. The album gracefully straddled both movements, with songs that were soft and fragile, but also haunting and mysterious. Smith could be sarcastic, but he rarely settled for cheap irony. He found a way, at a time when post-modern cynicism laughs at overt displays of tenderness, to be sincere without seeming wimpy.

Smith's next two albums marked his move from indie label Kill Rock Stars to the high-powered Dreamworks Records. Those discs, XO and Figure 8, showed Smith moving toward bigger, more polished production. Coming on the heels of his Academy Award nomination, XO was Smith's "moment" record, the cultural millisecond when it became trendy to listen to - or name-drop - him. By the 2000 release of Figure 8, Smith's excellence had come to be taken for granted. Critics now widely viewed him as an expert craftsman, although his songs continued to reveal layers of quiet torment beneath the pop sheen. "Can't Make a Sound," the most beautiful song on Figure 8, served as a prime example: "I have become a silent movie/the hero killed the clown/can't make a sound."

Three years ago, those were just evocative phrases in a song. Today, they are a reminder that a voice which cut through the world's daily cruelties has been permanently silenced. •

Support Local Journalism.
Join the San Antonio Current Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state. Our readers helped us continue this coverage in 2020, and we are so grateful for the support.

Help us keep this coverage going in 2021. Whether it's a one-time acknowledgement of this article or an ongoing membership pledge, your support goes to local-based reporting from our small but mighty team.

Join the San Antonio Press Club for as little as $5 a month.