brent johnson digs up another lost treasure, this week from Elliott Smith …
Is it better to make art that shocks and confounds people, that’s unique and weird?
Or is it better to make art that is personal, universal and pours from the heart?
These are questions I’ve been thinking a lot about lately as I sit down and write music of my own. Of course, there’s a place in the world for both kinds of art. Roxy Music and Prince made careers out of doing the former. Leonard Cohen has spent his life doing the latter.
The real challenge is making music that does both. The Beatles did it. So did Brian Wilson.
And so did Elliott Smith.
In the decade before he stabbed himself to death in 2003, Smith created whole new soundscapes: twin acoustic guitars gently colliding, double-tracked vocals flittering into the ether. He sounded like a distant satellite drifting over your bedroom.
But his words also speaks of heartbreak, addiction, fear, pain. Even if you don’t know what his lyrics were about — they were often mysteriously obtuse — they cut through you. You can feel the torment, the anger, the sadness.
The best example may be ‘Angeles,’ a key track from Smith’s masterpiece, 1997’s Either/Or — the album he made just before he went from underground icon to indie superstar when his work from the film Good Will Hunting landed him a surprising Oscar nomination. ‘Angeles’ is likely about the record industry, and Smith’s trepidation with signing with a larger label. But anchored by eerie synthesizer and whisphered vocals, it feels like it could have been written for anyone who’s ever felt alienated, vulnerable and suspicious at the same time.
What a brilliant man, lost way too soon.