“Recently, on a trip to Mexico, I was caught off-guard by a cover of Elliott Smith’s “Between the Bars.” The version sounded so much like Billie Holiday that I was instantly dumbfounded. How, I wondered, could Billie Holiday cover Elliott Smith? – it was impossible. Slightly less impossible was Smith’s song as a cover of Billie Holiday. But this didn’t sit right either, and so when I learned that the performer in question was Madeleine Peyroux, I was relieved, even pleased. I’ve always thought of Elliott Smith as a musician whose sound and sensibility are deliberately at odds. Peyroux’s version only confirmed this impression for me; hers is a languid, slinking, sonorous rendition, one that displays a wide range of expression and phrasing. Smith’s harmonies and melodies just aren’t as extravagant.
Charles Wright ends one of his poems on a line that goes something like : “. . . and God knees our necks to the ground.” Not that God figures conspicuously – or even copiously – into Elliott Smith’s songs; the knees keeping Smith’s ear to the ground were always addiction and depression.
Still, there’s a ferocity churning just under the lilting surfaces of his music that’s both bodily and spiritual. Smith’s songs speak almost always through the urgency of nothing more than a whisper, as if had he raised his voice any higher the songs would tremble apart in their playing.
I’m no big fan of Ezra Pound, but how he said that artists with the least talent speak loudest – I think there’s some truth to that. And to the virtues of speaking softly.
What has continually struck me about Smith’s music is how the guy could slip a “fuck” (or a form of it) into a song and have it sound as fragile and fierce and justified as anyone’s best line of poetry. It shows up again and again in songs like “ St. Ides Heaven,” “ Strung Out Again ,” and “ I Didn’t Understand.”
For me that kind of sensibility has always conjured Berryman’s “memory of a lovely fuck.” That’s a line from the Dream Songs, I think, and probably mouthed by a wistful Henry Pussycat, but it captures for me the paradox at the heart of Smith’s artistry – how so many uglinesses found their way into his music and how he – somehow, anyhow – gentled nearly all of them.
Smith’s best songs are spooky and resigned, wistful for the many kinds of oblivion written into them. They’re dream-songs of a sort. Hypnotizing but wrenching. Self-lacerating but delicate. Melancholy, shy, numb.
Even the details surrounding his death remain wincingly brutal – he stabbed himself in the heart. Twice. Suffice it to say that the guy had demons, and the violence was latent there and what Smith chose to make from it (what he made in spite of it) was beautiful. For some of us that’s more than enough to aspire to.
It’s rare that a musician (or any kind of artist, for that matter) hangs with me as long as Smith has. I suspect I’m not alone in this regard. Most of us tend to outgrow influence. Or else convert it into the gloss of personal nostalgia. Or maybe it’s a mere matter of exhaustion – I don’t know.
For me the consequences of allowing for influence have always been that I assimilate what I need quickly and lustfully and hardly ever with the heart it takes to return to them with the same intensity and depth of feeling. I hardly read Hopkins anymore, and I haven’t studied a Bacon painting in years. Somehow Elliott Smith has escaped this phenomenon. Well, so far at least. But perhaps this is his music’s – any music’s – lasting promise. Unlike poetry whose pages we must always actively return to, music returns to us. When it does we’re a little sad, a little pleased too, but almost always surprised, reminded why we loved that damn song in the first place.”
Morgan Lucas Schuldt