Appreciating the songs of… Elliott Smith

Elliott Smith

The first in an occasional series in which Songwriting ponders the unique talents of the finest lyricists in modern music

Elliott Smith

olk music has long been the medium of choice for the broken hearted. From Leonard Cohen to Tim Buckley, its songwriting has left notepads and guitar strings sodden with the outpourings of fractured hearts. It should come as no surprise then that Elliott Smith would be similarly afflicted. It is, however, a sad consequence of writing such sad songs that Elliott Smith has largely been looked upon as a lyricist of morbidity and despair. Song titles such as ‘Miss Misery’ and ‘Ballad of Big Nothing’ do little to dispel this notion, but to pigeonhole him as such, is to miss the lyrical romantic beating in Smith’s broken heart.

Smith’s penchant for romantic imagery takes the form of a frozen romanticism. The beauty within his sweetest lines is akin to that which one experiences walking through a snow- drenched field, blanketed by an early morning sun. There is, of course, sadness, but it’s an almost happy sadness, that type that’s comforting. This creates an interesting setting as the listener is not just drawn in by the beauty of the lines. Smith’s words make the listener fall in love with him themselves.

This is an interesting twist on the listener-writer dynamic. For often when an artist reveals their innermost turmoil, the sense of power that they have over the listener comes from the awe inspired by their lyrics, the conviction of their work or conveying a message the listener can relate to. With Smith the listener is drawn so intensely towards him that his lyrical romanticism leads them to become romantics themselves. Smith’s power over the listener comes from turning his inability to find love in his own life to the capacity to find love with millions of broken hearted souls across the world.

“Sometimes I feel like only a cold still life/that fell down here to lay beside you”

This relationship between Smith and his fans is not the only facet of his lyrical romanticism. There is also the fact that the central theme in many of his songs has a romantic element to it. Smith writes about a number of romantic topics, taking the role of the wounded lover, the voyeur, the repentant, the depressive, the wistful, and the unexpectedly accepted, amongst others. Although it’s often easy to see references to more bleak topics, such as Smith’s depression and his drug addictions, most of the subjects and characters found in Smith’s writing are either lovers or those buried by the misery of being single. Thus while a depressive skin may surround many of his songs, this emotional fission can often be attributed to romantic issues.

Following from this focus on romantic subjects, there is also Smith’s romanticising of topics that aren’t strictly of a romantic nature. When he writes of his, or others’, drug addictions it is often from the perspective of a relationship. In Alphabet Town – describing a place renowned for being inhabited by drug users – he writes of taking care of another as a lover would do, holding a partners arm as they wander through temptation. Smith writes from a perspective that implies that he allows this because he understands that the individual is entwined to their addiction. When he says:

“I’ll show you around this alphabet town
I know what you are, I just don’t like it
I won’t say you’re wrong
I know it’s what you want, and it’s what I want
So let’s go out
I’m ready to go out
I’ll show you around this alphabet town”

he is writing about “going out” and buying drugs as one might write about a tryst.

Between The Bars also sees Smith interpret his need to self-medicate through alcohol as a relationship. In lines such as:

“The people you you’ve been before
That you don’t want around around anymore
That push and shove and won’t bend to your will
I’ll keep them still”

Smith personifies alcohol by writing as if it were a lover who would wrap its loving arms around him and cure his ills, a terrifyingly tender relationship between the two.

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Of course to label Smith, nothing other than a romantic is to belie the quiet rage that encases much of his work. With the voice of an angel he quietly tells the world to “fuck off and leave him alone”, as in Pictures Of Me, where he writes of being “so sick and tired of all these pictures of me, [that are] completely wrong, totally wrong”.

What’s important though is to look beyond the notion of Smith being nothing other than a depressive, because to do so is to overlook the lyrical romantic that beats inside his broken heart.

Words by Damien Girling

There are 4 comments

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  1. jo

    A good read and thank you. Elliott Smith should rightly be considered as one of the ‘greats’ – such stylish yet raw emotive songwriting and vocal delivery. A perfect union in an all too imperfect world. Pathos, irony.. real life and all its hope & tragedy, it’s all there in his work. You chose some of my favourite lyrics to illustrate some of your points – Between the Bars and Pictures of Me – such sublime songs!

    “Everybody’s dying just to get the disease”

    • Damien Girling

      Thanks Jo, I’m glad you liked it, I really appreciate your comments. I’m certainly with you in thinking that Elliott should be considered one of the ‘greats’. Cathartic songwriting at its most poetic. My personal favourite, of his lyrics, are those in ‘Angel In The Snow’. Utterly beautiful. If you haven’t already heard him then, I recommend Liam The Younger. He’s an excellent songwriter whose music is of the same rawness that you find on Elliott’s first two LPs, as well as on Bright Eyes debut album.

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