“Staking out the shadows between melancholy and fatalistic, Elliott Smith wrote pretty tunes that assumed the worst. At least that’s the critical shorthand on one of the more easily stereotyped artists of the last decade. But there’s more to Smith and his music than such faulty caricatures suggest.
A lyric from the song that opens Smith’s final studio album, “From a Basement on the Hill” plays right into the tortured-artist cliché: “I’ll never be good enough for you.” Of course, it’s tempting to read even more into Smith’s pessimism now that he’s gone, his death from two stab wounds last year instantly elevating him to rock-martyr status. Continue reading →
“Were you at college with Elliott Smith? I was. I remember him very, very slightly. I remember some band that he was in, vaguely. I remember not liking it very much. I remember his friends seemed like jocks at Hampshire. His music is pretty earnest. Yeah, he was kind of on a different wavelength than Hampshire, than my cohorts. He wasn’t in one of the more important Hampshire bands of the day.”
“I’ve just received a hefty volume aboutElliottSmiththat’s been put together by the photographer Autumn De Wilde. Flicking through, it looks great, and it really hammers home something that bugs the shit out of me when people often talk or write about Smith. It’s just too easy to write about him as this “troubled”, “unhappy”, “doomed” figure, to spend an hour with a profoundly shy man and divine from it that he was somehow not long for this world. Of course, Smith had problems: at times, when I was never quite sure whether he was talking on or off the record, he was fairly explicit about them to me. But really, the habit of simplifying his life into one inexorable downward spiral winds me up time and time again; it reminds me, too, how glib writers can come across – and i’ve certainly been guilty of this – when they try and psychoanalyse their subjects. Continue reading →
“The more research I did for this article, the less I wanted to write it, all aware of the irony – or flat-out hypocrisy – of writing an introduction like this to yet another article on the very subject I am chastising; fearing all I was doing was insensitively adding to this pile and being yet another unqualified person to talk about the life and death of a person whom I never knew or met. Article after contradictory article I read, an overwhelming strand often found tying these together – aside from the more canonizing, unctuous pieces – is the removal of compassion, treating Elliott as though he was nothing but a story, an object, a subject for copy. Continue reading →
“The biggest misconception, I think, is that Elliott was a sad-sack folk artist whose work was a direct extension of the darker parts of his life. Even a cursory listen to an album like XO should roundly disprove that notion, but I think there are a lot of reasons we’ve collectively bought into the romantic myth of the suffering artist. I don’t think writing my book had as much to do with the strength of my relationship to Elliott’s music as it did with the sudden, overwhelming sense that Elliott’s work was broadly and sadly misunderstood.”
“In person, Smith was much that his songs suggested he would not be: direct, relaxed, easy to talk to. In fact, he talked for hours and even let me interview his father, Gary, backstage in Portland. There was only one thing he would not do,and it was instructive. According to Smith, for theSpinphoto shoot, he was asked to wear a tight, white T-shirt artily spattered with fake blood. (FormerSpinstaffers deny that this happened.) Smith felt that he was being asked to play the role of the tortured artist, marketing his pain. He walked out of the shoot, though he later returned and offered to pose in less theatrical ways. (For a variety of reasons, he ultimately did not appear on the cover.) At the time, I thought such stubbornness was an example of someone taking a principled stand about controlling his own image. Now, I wonder whether it was a case of an acutely conflicted artist finding a brand-new way of sabotaging his success.”
“Let this dignified CD not be the start of a multi-label Elliott Smith refabrication issuing forth several unsatisfactory “best-of” collections bittersweetened with rarities and “never-before-heard” vault finds and overdubbed demos. Fans of Tupac, Nick Drake, Johnny Cash, the Beatles and Jeff Buckley may maintain a philosophy of the-more-the-merrier regarding posthumous releases, but I’m always reminded by them of Steven Patrick Morrissey’s ominous verses from the Smiths’ “Paint A Vulgar Picture”: Continue reading →
“I spent nearly a decade missing the point of Elliott Smith’s music for reasons that I really wanted to interrogate. When I first heard about Elliott’s music, it was in the context of, “Here’s this guy who was basically a homeless junkie and did tons of drugs and now he makes this sad folk music about it.” When I finally started paying attention to XO –really paying attention– I was pretty shocked to realize that Elliott was not only avoiding those clichés, he was actively taking them apart. Here was a record where a guy was actually saying, “Look, pain isn’t beautiful, creativity isn’t borne of suffering,” and he’s saying it through these impossibly precise Beatlesque pop songs. Yet it still gets pretty consistently described as sad folk music.
I find the romanticized connection between suffering and creativity hugely troubling. I’ve seen it used to justify awful, self-destructive behavior. I wanted to write about Elliott’s music in a way that sheds some light on all the actual work that went into his creative output; it’s not like he just put down a syringe, picked up an acoustic guitar, and channeled his deep existential suffering into beautiful words and melodies. I also wanted to dig a bit into why we find the romanticization of suffering so compelling, why we assume that an artist’s most compelling work must have roots in their darkest personal histories.”
“He was very upfront about his alcohol issues when he would do interviews, and I always admired that about him. But then, we’d be doing those interviews in a bar, more often than not. And after he moved to New York, I think every interview we did was in a bar.”