The first Elliott Smith song I ever heard was "Somebody That I Used to Know," in fall of 2000. As periodically happened in that bold new millennium, I was putting on my pants in someone else's bedroom.
She had a six-CD changer, and "Somebody That I Used To Know" was the second track on disc three, a mix whose provenance I was barely smart enough not to ask about. We would get quiet in the mornings when that song came on, shuffling around with socks in our hands and thinking, I suppose, about how we would probably never break up.
We were wrong, and Elliott Smith was right. To paraphrase, "I had tender feelings [she] made hard / but it [was] her heart, not mine, that's scarred / so when I [went] home I [was] happy to go. / [She's] just somebody that I used to know."
I'd like to say I think about her whenever I hear that song, but by now I've had Figure 8 for about six times longer than we ever dated. It's more that when I think of something that used to make me sad, I wind up listening to Elliott Smith.
Chuck Klosterman called him "the thought experiment of a clinically depressed Beatle." Even his quietest, most desperate songs have that same light sense of melody. It's just the lyrics are about asking your friends for money and they won't give it to you because you're a junkie.
Smith was a junkie. He died 10 years ago this week in Los Angeles, where he reportedly stabbed himself in the chest with a kitchen knife, twice, after an argument with girlfriend Jennifer Chiba. The report came from Chiba herself, who was questioned but never indicted. The idea that Smith would kill himself was too plausible.
His signature vocals are recorded just above a whisper and overdubbed several timesthe sound of someone obsessively rewriting a diary entry. The lyrics are self-lacerating and relentlessly specific, as in the opening lines of "Clementine," the third track from his self-titled debut: "Waking you up to close the bar / street's wet; you can tell by the sound of the cars."
That right there is a man with either a good imagination or a good memory. Smith's career can be read as the desperate attempt to exchange one for the other, but that is conjecture. You can pretty much concoct any theory you want about Elliott Smith, as long as it does not involve him being happy.
"High on amphetamines," he sings in "St. Ides Heaven." "The moon is a lightbulb breaking. / It'll go around with anyone, / but it won't come down for anyone." And that's the chorus.
Ten years later, approximately the same culture would produce Rebecca Black's "Friday," whose chorus is "partyin', partyin', yeah!" The gap between that kind of pop and Smith's music seems insurmountable, except "St. Ides Heaven" begins with the same accumulation of images, the same drooping melodic phrases repeated and then raised to a triumphant chorus. The only difference is that instead of waking up in a suburban bedroom, Smith woke up in a bar.
Herein lies the singular charm of Elliott Smith: It's pop music. "Whatever (Folk Song in C)," on the second disc of the posthumous outtakes collection New Moon, ties up as neatly as any Supremes hit. Even "Miss Misery," Smith's contribution to the Good Will Hunting soundtrack that begins with plans to "fake it through the day with some help from Johnny Walker Red," has an earworm chorus that ends with a button.
It's pop music by someone who has lost faith in what pop music is fundamentally about. The structure is everywhere, and everywhere Smith is alienated from it; partying has escaped the weekend to destroy Tuesday afternoon, and new love is just another person to use.
It would all seem mawkish if it weren't so closely observed. The songs would be dirges if you didn't wind up singing them doing the dishes. As it is, Elliott Smith's music is so relentlessly about regret and so manifestly, meticulously crafted that it denies its own sadness. He can't have been abject, because he kept getting inspired. He shouldn't have killed himself, because he was a genius.
Or maybe he had to kill himself for the same reason. The musical career of Elliott Smith is documentary proof that being really good at something doesn't make you happy. It asserts the insidious claim of modern poseurhood: that a smart, sensitive person can only be alienated and depressed.
I don't think that's true. If it were, though, we would have to work up to looking at it. We would have to practice three or four minutes at a time, on rainy afternoons or when we think about what we said to our first girlfriends and can't take back now because we said it before Facebook was invented, getting ready to regret everything and then stop caring about even that. We would need a friend to introduce these ideas to us. We would want him to sugarcoat it a little, but most of all we would need him to tell the truth.