There’s a strange moment during “Seigfried,” the track that starts the final act of Frank Ocean’s Blond(e). “Seigfried” is a quiet reflection on the state of its narrator’s life, but at about three minutes in, Ocean starts singing another song entirely. “This is not my life,” he sings. “It’s just a fond farewell to a friend.”
The lines are instantly recognizable to anyone who’s a fan of Elliott Smith, because they make up the chorus to Smith’s song “A Fond Farewell,” from his posthumous album From a Basement on a Hill. If the words weren’t enough, it’s clear that Ocean is quoting Smith, because he abandons the melody to his own song entirely, singing Smith’s instead. It makes for a strange non sequitur, almost like Ocean is lost in thought for a moment, before he returns to “Seigfried.”
In the 13 years since his passing, Smith has become a sort of shorthand for sadness, replacing Leonard Cohen as the person mentioned when someone who’s only casually acquainted with music wants to complain about “all that depressing stuff you listen to.” The title of his most famous song even provides him with a pithy nickname — he’s Mister Misery, the man who wrote “Miss Misery” and performed it at the Oscars to a bunch of confused superstars. The tenth anniversary of his death bought a slew of retrospectives (the best of which was Jayson Greene’s exhaustive and wonderful oral history for Pitchfork) but since then, he’s returned to the sidelines, a singer adored by fans and purists, and remembered by the world at large as that depressed dude who most likely killed himself.
So what’s he doing in the middle of a Frank Ocean song? The most simple answer is that Ocean knows him as the world at large knows him, but I doubt that: Smith isn’t the sort of singer with whom one is casually acquainted, especially if you’re predisposed to depression, melancholy, and all the other emotions that fill Ocean’s songs as they once did Smith’s. No, if you’re a Smith fan, then you’re probably a fan, someone who has — like your correspondent, god help me — pored over his lyrics, tried despairingly to emulate his effortlessly fluid and intimate guitar technique, and sung his songs in your darkest moments, finding solace and comfort where others only find the sound of someone being morose.
Back, then, to “Seigfried.” Like everyone else, I’m still digesting Blond — first impressions, for what they’re worth, is that it’s a beautiful record, and at over 60 minutes, there are still new delights to find on every listen. Even so, “Seigfried” stood out immediately, and not just because I’m a hopeless Smith obsessive. (In fact, I didn’t even notice the “A Fond Farewell” quote first time around, perhaps because I’m so used to hearing Smith’s songs that the presence of his words didn’t seem unusual in the least.)
Like some of Ocean’s other most memorable songs, it has a real atmosphere to it, one that’s — to me, at least — unmistakably Los Angeles. The song evokes long California nights that are so perfect that they seem almost featureless — the air is neither warm nor cold, and the party’s long since finished, but here you are, still awake with what’s left of a bag of West Coast coke, your emotions deadened, flattened, but still bleeding into the perfection of the empty night.
The lyrics fit this mood — they find the song’s narrator reassessing his life, questioning his choices and and his future direction: “Maybe I’m a fool/ To settle for a place with some nice views/ Maybe I should move/ Settle down, two kids and a swimming pool.” In one of the album’s most striking images, he notes that “I’ve tried hell/ It’s a loop/ And the other side of a loop is a loop.” Here, depression and addiction — two of the album’s recurring themes — are cast as a sort of Mobius strip, inverting the conventional image of “turning over a new leaf.” Even if you do flip the page, he seems to be saying, you just find the same writing on the other side. As the listener ponders this image, Ocean asks an unspecified someone — or, perhaps, no-one — “What would you recommend I do?”
It’s at this point that the Smith quote appears. The obvious conclusion is that Ocean is talking to Smith, or at least sitting and listening to “A Fond Farewell” while he ponders questions that have no answers. Like “Seigfried,” “A Fond Farewell” catalogues a narrator sitting and trying to evaluate his life in an objective, removed manner. “The Lite-Brite‘s gone black and white/ ‘Cos I took apart a picture that wasn’t right,” Smith sings, and the song’s lyrics return to this idea of watching your life as if it’s someone else’s — the narrator refers to himself in the third person, watching himself as he smokes heroin, vomits in the sink, and sits numbly as his lover leaves him. It’s almost like he’s watching a film.
Smith used the image of himself as an actor many times — “King’s Crossing,” “Happiness,” “Pictures of Me” — and Ocean, too, uses it here: after the Smith quote, the song pivots, and Ocean’s delivery shifts from his keening singing voice to a spoken monologue, one in which he tries to convince himself to get out of his head and enjoy life more. “Why,” he asks, “not spend this flammable paper on the film that’s my life?”
As the song draws to an end, he sounds less than convinced — “I’d do anything for you,” he sings, and this time it’s clear he’s not singing to Elliott Smith. And then he falls silent, and the song fades out. It’s an ambivalent ending, one that sounds dark and yet contains a perverse glimmer of hope, because if the person that either of these songs’ creators are watching are versions of themselves to whom they’re bidding farewell, then what remains for them is a film yet unexposed, a future yet unwritten.
Smith’s story is written now, of course, and already was before “A Fond Farewell” was even released, which makes the song all the more poignant listening. (One of the saddest things about Smith’s posthumous narrative is the way his suicide is depicted as something unavoidable, a conclusion toward which he was always headed, because he struggled hard for many years to stay alive. I’ve written here before about how “fighting” depression is more a happy myth than a reality, but Smith was a fighter if there ever was one, and it’s his great tragedy his life ended just as it appeared things were finally looking up for him — he’d gotten clean, he was being treated for depression, etc. It’s for this reason, perhaps, along with the undeniably strange circumstances of his death, that so many fans have trouble accepting that he killed himself.)
Ocean’s future is still to play out, a theme to which he returns, after a brief pause, on Blond‘s last track, the long, rambling “Futura Free.” Like that song, which stumbles and stutters over nine minutes of free-association and several tempo shifts, the future is a confusing place, but it’s only a creation of the present — and if listening to Elliott Smith has helped Frank Ocean say farewell to a version of himself he wants to leave in the past, well, he’s not alone.