I listen to Elliott Smith often but almost always alone. Back when I did these sorts of things, I would write late into the night with Either/Or on repeat, a dwindling pack of cigarettes beside the computer. His songs became the wallpaper of my solitary 3 a.m. --songs told in a whisper, lonely and hopeful, songs that connect to the parts of ourselves we tend to lock away in diary entries and love letters.
On Tuesday, Anti Records releases Smith's posthumous album, From a Basement on a Hill, almost exactly a year after he was found dead in his apartment from two stab wounds to the chest. Although conspiracy theories abound, conventional wisdom is that he committed suicide. "Give me one reason not to do it," he pleads in Basement's "King's Crossing," which is probably more about addiction than suicide. "Took a long time to stand, took an hour to fall," Smith sings later in "A Passing Feeling," which is also probably more about addiction than suicide. But addiction can be a kind of suicide; Elliott Smith knew that.
What will strike most people about the new album is its complex arrangement. Opener "Coast to Coast" is unlike any Smith record I've heard, with its lush orchestration and Flaming Lips drums. Most die-hard fans have greeted this stylistic change with all the enthusiasm of a neighborhood prison opening, but they needn't worry. Basement still has plenty of hushed, finger-picked melodies told alone in the dark ("Let's Get Lost," "Fond Farewell"). And "Coast to Coast," a poppy sing-along of solipsism and sadness, stands up with his best music. "Anything that I could do/Could never be good enough for you," he sings. But is he talking to someone else--or to himself?
In this week's Dallas Observer, Jeff Liles remembers the days and weeks after Smith's suicide ("Ashes on Everything," page 255). Below, I've asked some of our music writers to tell you about their favorite Elliott Smith song, the one they might listen to at 3 a.m. Again and again.
"Baby Britain," XO
For me, "Baby Britain" was Elliott Smith. On the surface, it's happy, jaunty even, with steady, upbeat keyboards and a carefree, poppy Beatles-like style. But the happiness masks a darker side: the story of a woman for whom alcohol makes as many problems as she thinks it solves. He can't help her, but he drinks with her just the same. I listened to Smith sing out his own problems, album after album, but he was beyond help, too. --Shannon Sutlief
"Say Yes," Either/Or
Some of Elliott Smith's songs reflect a depression spiraling out of control, with orchestrations cribbed from old Beatles records. Some reflect it by sounding like a guy sitting alone in a room strumming his pain with his fingers. "Say Yes," an exquisite sliver of sweater-weather acoustica, is one of those. Yet it finds hope in that plainness, too: "Situations get fucked up," Smith whispers over chords as supple as smoke, "and turned around sooner or later." --Mikael Wood
"Sweet Adeline," XO
In high school, my forays into new music were limited to what my cheap hands found in the used-CD bin, so I assume some otherworldly force left an open copy of XO at the store the day I found it. Songs as beautiful as opener "Sweet Adeline" have to be fated, right? Smith's feathery strumming, robust poetry and full-band explosion were what I'd been seeking in a song for years, and to this day, it still sounds that fresh. --Sam Machkovech
"Thirteen," from the film Lucky 3
The lyrics and music are Alex Chilton and Chris Bell's, and the song's been covered by the likes of Wilco, Mary Lou Lord and the Lemonheads, among many, but the Big Star track's never sounded so perfectly sweet and miserable as it does in the hands of Elliott Smith. He strums his guitar, begging a girl for a date--to be, in fact, "an outlaw for my love"--but knowing it's not going to happen. He says he's fine with it, that he "won't make" her love him, but we know otherwise. You can hear it in his voice, which breaks till it cracks till it just fades away. --Robert Wilonsky
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