Elliot Smith eternalized: The Turntable

Posted by Eric Shapiro

Suicide may well be the best career move in the cadaver-lined halls of the rock music business, but it also leaves artists who choose to end it all with massive bloodstains on their reputations. Elliott Smith gets tons of respect among indie rock fans and much is made of his morbid, drug-addled lyrics.

It is an understatement to call him a mess and anyone who was surprised by his decision to drive a steak knife through his heart was not paying attention.

But lets look beyond the myth for a minute. Elliott Smith is far more than a depressive amateur poet who killed himself; he is also one of the greatest songwriters and composers of the past two decades. And what better opportunity to reflect on the oft-neglected qualities of his music than with the release of the aptly titled "An Introduction to… Elliot Smith."

"Waltz #2," from Smith's major label debut "XO," is lavishly adorned and may come as a shock to those who have only heard his earlier acoustic work. Its classy piano line and waltz beat are a welcome departure. Smith's songwriting was consistent in form as it was in quality, and "XO" demonstrates that it could benefit from expression in a new, fuller context.

"Alameda," "The Biggest Lie" and "Pictures of Me," all from "Either/Or," are above average Elliott Smith songs, which is to say subtly creative and immediately recognizable. "Between the Bars" is a career highlight, perhaps because it strays a bit from the artist's usual faire. The guitar on "Between the Bars" is restrained and placid, allowing its haunting melody to infiltrate your brain.

"Needle in the Hay," from Smith's self-titled debut album, is one of the most well-known songs in his discography due to its appearance in Wes Anderson's indie classic "The Royal Tenenbaums," ironically during a scene where one of the main characters attempts suicide.

"Last Call" is one of the album's less memorable tracks, but it's interesting to see what Smith can do with an electric guitar when he's in the mood.

"Angeles" lifts the quality back up to standard Elliott Smith level, beginning with one of his greatest guitar lines. The fingerpicking in this song would make Nick Drake proud.

"Twilight," in contrast, is sappy, boring and forgettable; it is the one downright bad song on the album, demonstrating that Smith's emotional delivery can be cloying when his songwriting isn't up to par.

"Angel in the Snow," my personal pick for the best song Elliott Smith wrote, is rare in that it is easy to appreciate the first time you hear and only grows more hauntingly beautiful with each listen. It captures Smith's ability to pour numerous, seemingly incompatible emotions into one song, creating a mood that is simultaneously indescribable and immediately recognizable. Very few artists can so effectively convey feelings in their music without sounding forced.

Elliott Smith's songs adhere to your brain because their initially familiar chord progressions veer off and resolve in unexpected, uniquely satisfying ways. All the while, his ethereal vocals twist and turn to accommodate the guitar. Smith is always careful not to allow drums, bass and other instruments to distract from the elegant simplicity of his vocal melodies and his guitar.

Elliott Smith's songs, while influenced by artists of the past, are highly individualistic creations that contain more depth than is immediately apparent. His personality is one of contradictions, and his music accordingly blends seemingly incompatible feelings and mindsets: melancholy and cheerfulness, compassion and selfishness, child-like innocence and world-weary cynicism.

Fans and critics will always ponder how Elliott Smith would have progressed creatively had he not given up on life, but thankfully we are left with a full and varied discography consisting of both LPs and thoughtfully-arranged compilations like this one.

Eric is a junior who loves rock music in all forms. You may see him around campus in a band T-shirt listening to his iPod and looking unapprochable, but rest assured he is quite friendly and will usually only attack when provoked.

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