Friday, October 05, 2007

Coming up roses

Georgia, Georgia - Elliott Smith

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.


Anonymous Neil said...

Great piece, Amy. I don't have much to add, except a "me too" when it comes to the New Moon collection, which I gave three or four tries since it was an Elliott Smith record but just couldn't get into. Nothing with the, well, bounce of "Waltz #2" or "Son of Sam"--not only in terms of the music, but also that pressing quality in his voice that commands my attention.

9:15 AM  
Blogger Jon said...

Amy: I second Neil and would go so far as to say your continued presence at SYF represents an ongoing "F those sad, dead boys" statement. You walk the walk.

Two things continue to shock me about Mr. Smith: 1) Coming Up Roses... he had the unmitigated audacity to take on Ethel Merman. 2) How amazingly constructed those middle albums are as albums. No amount of well-performed archaeology is going to get you to S/T, Either/Or or XO. The posthumous LPS are just sets of ES songs and that's not something you're used to.

3:47 PM  
Blogger jonderneathica said...

I bought New Moon and am very happy with it, mainly because the songs were created during that period of the "middle albums". I didn't like the direction Elliott took with Figure 8, and I can't bear to listen to Basement, largely for the same reasons that Amy describes.

The posthumous release of Basement was accompanied by articles claiming that it wasn't put out the way that Smith intended it, and that there were unreleased songs (particularly "Abused") that his family/estate objected to. And some of the songs that made it to Basement are just too tragic. So when I listen to New Moon, I can hear (or at least imagine that I hear) a "happier" Elliott.

6:53 AM  
Blogger Dave Rawkblog said...

"Amanda Cecilia" - or properly, "Cecilia/Amanda" - isn't on New Moon because it's from the Jackpot sessions - after the timeframe and label jurisdiction of the NM stuff.

I'm a little confused by what you're trying to say here. The ELLIOTT WAS SAD concept is one tossed about by lazy critics and writers but his fans - and we are rabid - are well aware of the emotional complexity of the guy's music and his real-life personality.

What does it have to do with New Moon, which is a fine collection and a really excellent piece of work by engineer Larry Crane? These are the songs Elliott was writing during that era, and if you've heard all the bootlegs and listened to his other albums, the songs are pretty par for the course. If anything, the songs that don't fit are the upbeat, pre-XO tunes like "New Monkey" which have a totally different vibe.

5:58 AM  
Blogger Dave Rawkblog said...

And in all likelihood New Moon is much closer to Elliott's vision than Basement, which was supposed to be a dirty, White Album-like double album and instead got polished and produced within an inch of its life. Listen to how fierce the guitar tones on the instrumental version of "Coast to Coast" (with all the spoken word bits on it) sound compared to the album version.

6:03 AM  
Blogger Amy said...

What I'm trying to do, Dave, is reckon with the fact that I don't like New Moon much. In many ways I'm talking about personal taste, as I say and imply several times. (And, as you know, this blog is a personal response to music, not music journalism.)

But I'm also interested in how fans and more official channels produce meaning. You and Jon/Underneathica prefer Smith's folkier mid-90s work, I happen to think that a bigger budget and the opportunity to flesh out his songs as pop pieces (as Neil says, the "bounce") was the best thing that ever happened to him. But we're all fans and, as you say, understand the emotional complexity of his music. We exercise our own versions of it.

I'm concerned about people first encountering Smith and finding this rock-boy suicide myth. As Jon (who knows me too well) hints in his comment, it's been a long-running project of mine.

11:37 AM  

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