How Elliott Smith’s Sad Songs Helped Us Heal

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I was never a fan of Elliott Smith while he was alive. It wasn’t that I disliked him — it was just that, for me, he was on that list of musicians whose work you mean to investigate and never quite get around to, an artist who exists at the periphery of your awareness and who you know you’d probably appreciate. People kept recommending him, semi-jokingly: he’s intelligent and he’s super depressing, you’d definitely like him. And then he died. Ten years ago today. And like many others, I came to realize what a wonderful talent we’d lost. When he was already gone forever.

People often ask me why I like “depressing music,” how I can be such a hilarious self-parody that I can actually, genuinely listen to Leonard Cohen at the gym, for Christ’s sake. And the answer is always the same: it makes me feel better. I think a lot of people have this reaction to Elliott Smith’s music: for all that its subject matter is often bleak, there’s something about it that’s soothing. There’s a comfort, I think, in sad songs — for people like me, at least, it’s not terrifyingly jaunty, upbeat pop music that can lift you out of a dark mood, but rather art that reflects your experience, that tells you you’re not alone.

And Smith’s music was particularly special because somehow it found beauty in even the darkest of moments; rarely has an artist’s work given such expression to the term “bittersweet.” His songs are as beautiful as they are sad, and the combination makes them emotive in a way that few other musicians have ever been able to rival. As Dan Turkel wrote in a beautiful essay for Death & Taxes, “An Elliott Smith record is a declaration that it’s okay to feel… that every emotion can be made beautiful, and that suffering doesn’t preclude the ability to create something profound and amazing.”

Like Turkel, it was the record that was released after Smith’s death, the quietly terrifying From a Basement on the Hill, that first introduced me to his work. The album remains my favorite, for all that it was unfinished at the time of Smith’s death, that its final form remains controversial, and that its songs are desperately sad and often harrowing listening, cataloging its author’s disastrous drug addictions and his deep depression.

Plenty of people have written songs about addiction over the years, but few have done so with as much eloquence and clarity as Smith. Songs like “Strung Out Again” and “King’s Crossing,” for instance, are all the more crushing for their self-awareness — “It don’t matter because I have no sex life,” Smith sings on the latter, “[And] all I want to do now is inject my ex-wife/ I’ve seen the movie/ And I know what happens.” For the same reason, the album’s most poignant moment is “Twilight,” a quietly devastating song that’s the lyrical equivalent of watching a drowning person sink beneath the waves for the last time: “Because your candle burns too bright/ Well, I almost forgot it was twilight/ Even if I think that you are right/ Well, I’m tired of being down, I got no fight.”

But like all Smith’s work, “Twilight” is also delicately, impossibly beautiful, his fragile voice set over a backing of sparse acoustic guitar and muted backing vocals, rendering a melody that’s as gorgeous as the words are sad. It’s so beautiful, in fact, that it’s curiously, perversely uplifting — it’s impossible not to hear such a graceful song and not feel somehow elevated, even when you know that its subject matter is pretty much as black as songwriting gets. This is the Elliott Smith experience encapsulated, where even a song like “Between the Bars” (a literal conversation between the singer and his alcoholism), or quietly bleak junkie songs like “The White Lady Loves You More” and “Needle in the Hay” can still floor you with how their author managed to weave such beauty into a dissection of his darkest moments.

I’ve never been an addict, thank god, although like many people I’ve flirted with dependence on various shit. But depression, well, yeah, that’s something I can most definitely relate to, and it’s an experience that Smith’s music also evokes all too well. The talk of “faking it through the day,” or the quiet desperation of a line like “what I used to be will pass away, and then you’ll see/ That all I want now is happiness for you and me,” or the description of a manic episode in “Pretty (Ugly Before)” … anyone who’s ever suffered from depression will relate to these immediately, and their mood and imagery recur throughout Smith’s lyrics. Equally, Smith’s songs about the abuse he suffered during his childhood have by many accounts resonated with those unfortunate enough to have suffered through similar experiences.

Indeed, it’s been interesting to see how divergent people’s memories of Smith have been. Slate proclaimed XO, and specifically “Waltz 2 (XO)” — a desperately sad song about Smith’s relationship with his mother and stepfather — to be his “certain masterpiece,” while Turkel’s essay cites From a Basement on the Hill. Stereogum has published a roundup of musicians remembering Smith, and they all cite different favorites, while Stereogum’s own list of Smith’s top 10 songs is totally different from mine, and probably yours as well.

Everybody finds something different to relate to in Smith’s music, and it’s part of his songwriting genius that songs that deal so explicitly with his own experience are nevertheless universally relatable. And there are many, many people who have found solace in his words and music — because for all that people have cited many different parts of his catalog as their favorites, the common thread among all these reminiscences has been of how his music has helped people through their own dark times. As far as legacies go, it’s one that’s really rather inspiring, and very much worth celebrating.

A couple of years after Smith’s death, Magnet published a lengthy feature about his life and legacy. It ended with a realization that for all that he would probably have hated it, Smith’s death means he would “be remembered by history on the same hallowed page as Kurt Cobain and Nick Drake… and so be it. Not because he died a Byronic death — or because he was a junkie or because he walked around with a terrible secret he couldn’t live with — but because he kept himself alive for 34 years. And this is what he did with his time on Earth.” Amen to that. And rest in peace, Elliott Smith. The world misses you.