Coming up roses
Amanda Cecilia - Elliott Smith
Color Bars (live) - Elliott Smith
The Big Fact about Elliott Smith is that he was a sad bastard. Possibly the saddest bastard of them all. Deviate from this script, and you have to answer questions you'd really rather not because you might just be as invested in this tortured genius thing as all the weepy indie fanboys and the deceased's estate. I've thought a lot about whether suffering--particularly mental suffering--is productive of "great" art, whether it's necessary if an artist is going to create something dazzling, meaningful, for-the-ages (I know). I wrote my undergraduate thesis on how mental illness informed the work of bipolar patrician Robert Lowell and his modest, melancholy comrade-in-poetry, Randell Jarrell. Whether it was a critical component of the process. I can't remember what I concluded (it was eons ago now, and I can't reread the thing without succumbing to massive cringe attacks). But I suspect I delivered a tentative "yes" to the above question. Each passing year I inch in the other direction, and have almost decided that suffering is productive of virtually nada--it's just an evil we'd all avoid if we possibly could. Talent (and hard work) is something separate. But I don't have proof, just life experience.
So I become increasingly irritated with the official story of Elliott Smith, its privileging of certain information. The tortured, depressed, drug-addicted, gruesome-and-mysterious-end material. The lyrical breadcrumb trails. The romantic inevitability death-wish shit. As if the endless resuscitation of Ian Curtis (coming soon to a screen near you!), Nick Drake, Kurt Cobain, et al--so that they might reenact icky voyeuristic scenarios of doom and genius--doesn't sate us. (This guy's codification of the rock star self-destruction plot implies we'll never get enough.) I'm irritated with how this Elliott Smith narrative is officially produced and circulated via posthumous collections. Not so much with From a Basement on a Hill (Amazon), which reportedly is pretty close to what Smith intended and actually sounds finished and fully realized. Basement at least balances grim self-eulogies like "Fond Farewell" and "King's Crossing" with subtle-shaded songs like "Memory Lane" and "Let's Get Lost."
No, what irritates me is the ironically titled New Moon (Amazon) odd-and-sods set released earlier this year. Part of what I say when I say "irritate," is that I haven't been able to get into this record. (And fair warning, I'm maybe letting personal taste, not so much my keen analytical (ha) reasoning inform me.) Many of these songs, of course, are first-rate compositions, and further evidence (as if needed), of Smith's rare and wonderful songwriting talent. Probably my favorite track is "Georgia, Georgia," which scans as an anonymous folk ramble, but upon closer reading has Smith stamped all over its hiccuped syncopation, aching melodicism and killer couplets. But Moon swallowed whole? More a gray and dreary set of samey rainy-day strums-and-whispers. A record drowned by an undertow of sad. And by design.
It was a forgone conclusion that Smith's demos and cast-offs would eventually be converted into cash (and I think his fans are rabid enough to buy in addition to downloading for free). That's not the issue. It's the version of Smith offered; that it's his sad songs that have cultural currency. And if they aren't really sad to start with, they'll be framed as such. Unreleased tracks have been making the rounds since his death, which means fans have organized Smith's output into the kind of infinite-possibilitied micro-narratives that digitization, online communities, mp3 playlists and random shuffles, blogs etc., enable. "Amanda Cecelia" --a vibrant track of whirling, bobbing carousel keys and lots of spit and sarcasm--is probably the best song in this floating file. And I think it's telling that the song wasn't included on either posthumous release (acknowledging that there might be other, for example legal, reasons it hasn't been collected--the song's just an example).
Fortunately I (you) don't have to accept the official version. I make my own by mixing "Amanda Cecelia" with other multi-valenced songs in the Smith catalogue. Songs that glow and spark and burst into flames, that ring and rage and thrash with life. And also brood and twitch and hurt. Songs like "Southern Belle" and "Waltz #2," "Rose Parade" and the piano version of "Miss Misery." Or an energetic concert recording of "Color Bars," that slyly funny song from Figure 8 (Amazon) with a joyous bouncing piano line and glorious string section. From the perspective of who this guy was/is, my Elliott Smith playlists are unschematic, incoherent, chaotic, and they rarely come up roses. They say more about me--and my need for realistic, therefore complicated, stories--than him. As they should.