Songs In The Key Of… Elliott Smith
Part of the team behind ‘Everybody Cares: An Elliott Smith Compilation’, Francis Lung takes us inside the beloved singer-songwriter’s catalogue
Elliott Smith’s music was a constant in my life between the ages of 16-20. He seemed to speak a truth that no one else spoke, which resonated hard with my adolescent heart and still does today. Here’s a vaguely chronological collection of songs of his that are particularly important to me. It’s not a highlight reel as there are plenty of those about, I just tried to write as if I was trying to convince myself to listen to these songs. I recently organised Everybody Cares, an Elliott Smith tribute album featuring wonderful people like Marissa Nadler, Oceanator, Christian Lee Hutson and Martin Courtney to raise money for LBGTQ+ charities, which is available at everybodycares.bandcamp.com. Hope you enjoy these musings and I hope these songs inspire you to write as much as they inspired me.
The one that burns
I heard this when I was 16 at a friend’s house. I’d heard Elliott before, but only Either/Or which I didn’t fully appreciate yet. What hooked me initially about Roman Candle was the guitar playing, the insistent papery strumming and dissonant fizzy electric guitar quietly bubbling away. I really hated ‘folk’ music at the time – I was heavily into Minutemen, fIREHOSE and Steely Dan – but this was a different kind of acoustic music. It was angry, unnerving and mysterious, and he fucking detuned during the song.
KIWI MADDOG 20/20
The one named after fortified wine
The last track on Roman Candle sounds like the music for the end credits to your teenage years. Consisting mostly of brushed drums and wonderful surfy Bigsby (presumably Gretsch Country Gentleman??) guitar work, this nostalgic instrumental is a really rewarding piece of songwriting. It wrestles itself out of your grip every time you try and get a handle on it.
THE BIGGEST LIE
The gold flake paint one
I covered this on the Everybody Cares compilation. From the second, self-titled album, this is a simple(ish) finger-picker where Elliott decries himself to be a “crushed credit card” and plays with the idea of sincerity (“we’re so precious, you and I…I just told the biggest lie”). Its classic, timeless pop structure makes you feel like you can go write a song with just four chords that everybody’s heard before and somehow walk away with something altogether new. Good luck with that btw.
THE LAST HOUR
The belated one
This came out posthumously on From A Basement On A Hill but was written in the early 90s. You hear that sound like someone sweeping the floor? It’s the sound of tape going around Elliott’s tape machine that he’s apparently sitting right next to, clicking rewind and redoing his overdubs until he’s happy or too tired to redo anymore. Even if you didn’t know what it was, it’s an example of the many elements that add the unparalleled intimacy ever-present in his work. Playing wise, it’s another ‘how the fuck does he…’ acoustic guitar moment.
The Oscar-nominated one
To me, his most perfectly complete song. It has one of those choruses that tag onto the end of the verse, like Dylan’s My Back Pages. This structure typically would throw you right back into another verse, but Elliott being Elliott decides to introduce a never-to-be-repeated bridge in an entirely new key, which somehow slinkily transposes back into the verse by virtue of some casually heart-breaking passing chords. Smith spins a story of abandoned plans, palm (mis)reading and disappearing physically and/or spiritually, tied together with some of his most beautiful alliteration. Oh yeah and there’s a second bridge and it’s even sicker.
The late night one
Probably because it’s relatively uncomplicated, this was the first Elliott song I learnt on the guitar. I think he wrote this after listening to Big Star’s In The Street (one of his fave bands) because of the similarities between the guitar riffs. I’m in love with riffs that sound like they’ve existed forever, and this one’s a perfect example. Simple, easy to play and instantly memorable. The hushed vibe in this track takes you to the place he must’ve been when he wrote it in the wee hours, playing quietly enough so no one will hear, distracting himself from sleep that won’t come.
The fuzzy one
A ‘rock’ song from outtakes compilation New Moon, this song taught me a lot about arranging. The distorted guitar in the choruses almost completely echoes the vocal line and harmonically there’s not a whole lot of other information there, yet it feels so full. This is a common trick of Elliott’s, the instruments worship the melody and as such the song remains king, not the production. It’s a good example of Elliott’s reverence for the classic pop song.
The one that comes out of nowhere
There are a few ‘drops’ in Elliott’s songbook – the ones in Everything Means Nothing To Me and 2:45am for instance, but Sweet Adeline is the most surprising. Those strident, shape-shifting, chord changes come crashing in one after another, relentless, rolling and utterly destabilizing. Another important lesson from the Smith songbook – the element of surprise is key to providing moments of euphoria in music.
I CAN’T ANSWER YOU ANYMORE
The one that won’t reply
My favourite part of this song is the pre-chorus where the harpsichord melody climbs impossibly high, somehow higher still before falling gracefully to its death, bemoaned by a tremulous, soulful, tooth-achingly bright guitar solo. It’s a song about having nothing to say that says lots emotionally instead.
EASY WAY OUT
The one that gives up
The way the melody falls from the fifth to the flat fifth is so original and striking, I’m surprised it’s still something we rarely hear outside of jazz, never mind indie folk-rock. Elliott was often harmonically sandbagged by sheer virtue of tradition, but when he was feeling more adventurous he could suddenly become ultra-chromatic. It’s this combination of the notes you expect to hear and the ones you don’t that I try to incorporate into my own writing.
IN THE LOST AND FOUND (HONKY BACH)
The honky one
Christian Lee Hutson somehow learnt how to play this note for note on guitar, proof exists on the previously-mentioned compilation. It’s equal parts uplifting and understated and the little trade-offs between the bass and piano in the middle are pure joy, a little conversation between Smith and himself. In his writing, I hear lots of inner dialogue. People talk a lot about the dark side of introspection but this is a good example of another, more constructive kind – keeping yourself company.
The French one
I remember being on tour in Paris and getting off the metro at Pigalle and smiling uncontrollably, looking around and trying to see what Elliot would have seen on his “half holiday”. The riff at the start of this one is something my hands always want to play when they touch an acoustic guitar. It’s so satisfyingly conventional and comforting, like an old standard passed down through the years. There’s no real chorus, just three verses that detail Elliott enduring boring music on the radio and failing to meet the eyes of someone with looks that kill. I really connected with the way he used to berate himself in his songs, almost like he was trying to shake off his lack of self-confidence by pointing out his flaws.
PRETTY (UGLY BEFORE)
The most beautiful one
Also the one where he pays himself a compliment. Well, kinda. This is such a vulnerable song for a man to sing, it’s still pretty rare to hear men refer to themselves as pretty, never mind “pretty enough for you”. This blurring of gender roles was somewhat common in Elliott’s work, and helped to redefine the male singer-songwriter as we know it today. Recorded on tour with full band including Quasi’s Sam Coombes on BVs, it’s one of the rare Elliott songs where you won’t hear him playing the drums.
It’s an incredibly tight performance and features one of Elliott’s best-ever guitar solos, which Martin Courtney (Real Estate) echoes perfectly in his cover of the song on the compilation. For me this is a good ender to this playlist, it’s bittersweet but sugary enough to leave you wanting more. And I guess I always do want more of Elliott’s music. His songs bring about a punishing catharsis through brutal and sometimes painful truth-telling. It’s a particular feeling that I compare to a scab I can’t leave alone. Because maybe I want to see the blood underneath, just to make sure it’s still there.