The Lyrical Genius of Elliott Smith
  • TUESDAY, JULY 04, 2017

  • Posted by: Jake Holzman

Elliott Smith was one of the most poetic, fascinating, and incredibly moving singer/songwriters we've ever had. He lived a painful life, but thankfully, he translated that pain into some of the most beautiful pop/rock songs of the past two decades. Smith was a talented multi-instrumentalist, as well as an insightful writer, and his melodies were often as gripping as his deeply personal lyrics. He's the classic example of an artist that makes you ask, "what more could you want?"

However, it's mainly because of his incredible lyrics that he deserves to be up there among the rest of the songwriting greats, alongside Bob Dylan, Patti Smith, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Paul McCartney, etc. To go a little more in depth with this, here's a brief list of ten Elliott Smith tracks that properly display his talents as a songwriter.

"Rose Parade"


A song about a failed attempt to cheer up a cynical, depressed Elliott Smith. His friends invite him to check out a parade, as if solely to get him out of the house, but he talks about it like they're asking too much of him ("You asked me to come down and watch the parade/ to march down the street like the Duracell Bunny"). While the band is playing all around him, he just can't relate to the joyous celebration. In fact, he can only reflect on how disingenuous it all is ("They got me singing along/ to some half-hearted victory song"). There's a lot of subtlety in this song, too. When he remarks that the cavalcade is "throwing out candy that looks like money," is that because he has money on the brain? Does this mean he's poor? Is that why his friends are trying to cheer him by inviting him to the parade? It's possible, but what's obvious is that Elliott Smith didn't care too much for pretending to be something he's not. To him, there's just no cause for celebration.

"Easy Way Out"


A lot of Elliott Smith songs sound like he's giving himself a harsh pep talk. Such is the case with "Easy Way Out." It's a beautiful track about selfishness, in which he refers to himself as an "invisible man who's always changing clothes." And yet, it's an insightful lesson for anyone to hear ("You'll take advantage until you think you're being used/ Because without an enemy your anger gets confused").

"Between The Bars"


While this is easily the most popular Elliott Smith song, a lot of people might miss the foreboding tone in the lyrics. Elliott Smith struggled with addiction for a long time, and "Between the Bars" is one of his most insightful looks at alcoholism. In fact, the song is written from the perspective of the alcohol itself, tempting Smith like the devil:

"Drink up, baby
Stay up all night
With the things you could do -
You won't, but you might.

The potential you'll be
That you'll never see;
The promises you'll only make.
"

God, it was hard for me to type out those lyrics without going on to include the rest of them. Every line in this song is overflowing with poetic detail, and it's one of those songs you can relate to without having ever experienced what the song is specifically talking about. It's both a great song that people struggling with addiction can listen to and feel understood, as well as a portrait of alcoholism that is so vivid that anyone can place themselves in it. That's how great of a songwriter Elliott Smith was: he could either articulate your own thoughts and experiences better than you ever could, or he could help you empathize with situations far removed from your own.

"Waltz, No. 2 (XO)"


It's impossible to talk about Elliott Smith without talking about "Waltz, No. 2." It's widely hailed as his masterpiece, and for good reason. The song is a detailed account of the divorce between his mother and stepfather, with him being caught in the middle. He's stuck in an awkward, family karaoke outing, which includes himself, his mother, his stepfather, and the woman he's cheating on his mother with (yikes).

Smith's mom uses the karaoke night to tell his stepfather how she feels about him, by singing a breakup song called "Cathy's Clown." Smith's stepfather responds similarly when it's his turn on stage, going so far as to choose a song that lets her know how he feels about her ("Here it is, the revenge to the tune/ ‘You're no good/ You're no good, you're no good, you're no good'").

You can feel Smith's longing to help and connect with his mother amidst the drama. He describes her as "showing no emotion at all/ she stares into space like a dead china doll," and ultimately decides, "I'm never gonna know you now/ but I'm gonna love you anyhow."

"Waltz #1"


Yup, both of the "Waltzes" are on here.

Of course, "Waltz, No. 2 (XO)" is one of Elliott Smith's most famous songs, and rightfully so. But "Waltz #1" doesn't get enough love. It's easily one of Smith's most poetic, and heartbreaking, tracks. It's a song about unwanted, recurring memories at the end of the day ("Every time the day darkens down and goes away/ Pictures open in my head of me and you/ Silent and cliche/ All the things we did and didn't say/ Covered up by what we did and didn't do"). Also, the arrangement is absolutely breathtaking. Smith's multi-instrumentalism really shines through here.

"Clementine"


You ever have those days when you drank so much the previous night that you wake up alone in a bar early the next morning? Well… Elliott Smith clearly has, at least. After all, that's what this song off of his self-titled album is about. The song's narrator came to this bar to drink away thoughts about his girlfriend, and his fears that their relationship is coming to an end. But then, when the bartender wakes him up early the next morning, the song the guy's singing reminds the narrator of exactly what he's trying to forget! What's his solution to this problem? Drink more, naturally.

"I Better Be Quiet Now"


"I Better Be Quiet Now," like a lot of Elliott Smith songs, is about loneliness. But more specifically, it's about that lonely feeling of meeting someone, not getting their number, and wondering what the hell you're supposed to do with yourself afterwards. "I wish you gave me your number/ I wish I could call you today/ Just to hear a voice/ I got a long way to go, and I'm getting further away."

Sometimes, all it takes is a sudden missed connection to stir up disconnect with our current situations. Elliott Smith articulates this beautifully, singing, "A lot of hours to occupy/ It was easy when I didn't know you yet/ things I'd have to forget."

"King's Crossing"


"King's Crossing," aside from "Between the Bars," is quite possibly the most tragic and heartbreaking song that Elliott Smith ever wrote. With lyrics like, "I can't prepare for death anymore than I already have," it's no wonder why a lot of people see this song, as well as the majority of From A Basement on a Hill, as his suicide note. The instrumentation is as grandiose, emotional, and chilling as his writing. You can just feel the pain of his depression through his lyrics, which tackle his inability to let out the frustration in his head ("Frustrated fireworks inside your head/ are going to stand and deliver talk instead"), fat cats profiting off of his deeply personal songs ("The method acting that pays my bills/ keeps a fat man feeding in Beverly Hills"), and his heroin addiction ("I'm going on a date/ with a rich white lady/ Ain't life great?").

Once again, I want to talk about literally every line of this song. It just gives you such a strong sense of who Elliott Smith was as a person, at the time. Nothing is left out. The song ends with subtle wordplay, as Smith changes the phrase "don't let me get carried away," which commonly refers to someone taking something too far (i.e. his eventual suicide), to the line "don't let me be carried away," (i.e. in a body bag or on a stretcher).

"Angeles"


An insightful look at the sinister temptations of talent scouts, prowling about L.A. for the next big thing. "Someone's always coming around here trailing some new kill/ Says I've seen your picture on a Hundred-Dollar Bill." Clearly, Smith did not take too kindly to his move to L.A. He sees it as a poisonous city that is falsely promising him the world.

"Say Yes"


To end this list with a love (?) song, "Say Yes" has to be on here. But, in typical Elliott Smith fashion, it's deeply cynical and analytical. The lyrics detail his longing for a relationship that consistently lasts ("I'm in love with the world/ through the eyes of a girl/ who's still around/ the morning after"), as well as his recent breakup, which leaves him surprised that he can even live without his ex in his life anymore ("We broke up a month ago/ I grew up, I didn't know/ I'd be around/ the morning after").


Smith goes on to explain how relationships never seem to work out, singing "it's always been wait and see/ a happy day/ and then you pay/ and feel like shit the morning after." This seems to be his long-held belief on relationships, telling his ex, "I could be another fool/ or an exception to the rule/ you tell me, the morning after" (so many "mornings after!"). And, as usual, Smith is as attentive as ever to the reality of the situation, realizing that the girl will tell all her friends about her decision before she tells him ("I'll probably be the last to know").

...But, of course, he still just wants her to "say yes!" This song is classic Elliott Smith, and evident to how brilliantly he wrote about relationship cliches that we all have to struggle through.

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