I’ve found myself taking a trip down memory lane as I listen to the newly remastered expanded edition of Elliott Smith’s Either/Or put out by Kill Rock Stars today.
I discovered Elliott Smith the same way I discovered a lot of music when I was young, by someone saying, “you HAVE to hear this!” As I was at an age where everything I heard was the best and coolest, they were very much correct and I’m glad I listened to them then. In this case, the someone was a friend of mine named Sean who lived in Fullerton, California – I have not and likely will never meet Sean, but I have a million fond memories of sending e-mails back and forth back talking about our favourite artists (we met on a Treble Charger message board, oddly enough – both odd that an American knew of my favourite Canadian pop-punk band, and also that we both for some reason found ourselves on their message board on a random summer in 2003.)
I was only 13 at the time so it’s safe to say all of Elliott Smith’s drug references went right over my mushroom-cut fitted head, but I became obsessed with his albums instantly. There is something to be said about how all-encompassing music can be when you allow it in… in this case, what really caught me was Elliott’s hauntingly soft voice. Much like the punk-rock bands I assaulted my eardrums with at the time, there was an honesty and rawness in his words that resonated with me. I would stay up for hours late at night watching the few videos I could find of him performing, because I craved the impurities that come along with his live performance. Better still, when you could capture a glimpse of him letting out a smile and seeing how in those moments he appeared to be so present in the moment and grateful that they were people in the audience eager to listen and give him their full attention. The thing about such soft spoken songwriters is that they don’t give you the big show; there are few lights outside of a light blue hue and spotlight, and there is nothing on stage but a stool to sit on. What also struck me about his performances was how respectfully quiet the audience was. Sure you might have a person or two yell out a song request during a longer than usual pause, but generally they’re quiet; they clap and cheer after each song but not long enough to impede the start of the follow-up. Personally I like to believe they’re quiet because they too felt that Elliott’s music required a certain level of distance to appreciate. They, like me in my room on Youtube, (or more accurately, bootleg downloads from Limewire.) simply appreciated the opportunity to in some way be a part of it, to witness it, and to feel it.
As people, we all love sad music. We love sad music for the same reason we love happy music; we are able to immerse ourselves in our feelings and address them in whatever manner we feel necessary at the time. That could mean parking yourself down on your bed and listening to the most depressing Pop music you have on hand letting the tears flow onto your pillowcase, or having an epic dance party with your best friend as you stumble and fumble with the choreography from the music video, or it could mean blasting angst-fueled Grunge while you workout. Sometimes we need to step away from the world a little and it is then in our solitude that we are able to be honest with ourselves and find clarity. It’s cathartic, especially if we find ourselves unable to easily express those thoughts and feelings with our family’s or friends. When we allow ourselves to embrace the sadness or the fear using a medium such as music, where the subject matter does not in any way directly relate to our lives, (in my case, Elliott with his addictions or his repressed feelings from childhood trauma.) it allows us to explore them in a safe way free of any real-world implications. As a child of course I didn’t have any sort of insight to this, but now, I realize that Elliott Smith was more to me than just another artist on rotation in my CD player. Elliott Smith helped me find relief and meaning that was well beyond my comprehension, and for that I am grateful.
Shortly after turning me onto the Figure 8 album – Sean’s all-time favourite Elliott Smith record, he informed me that Elliott had committed suicide. The details surrounding it, much like the rest of Elliott’s life, were minimized in the media and for most in my circle we simply never discussed it. It never really seemed important or interesting to discuss the matter in which he died, who he did or didn’t leave behind, what mattered was we still had 6 beautiful records we could listen to for hours on end, or minutes of the day. Whatever we needed. Sean and I spent an entire evenings discussing his work and talking about how unfortunate it was that neither of us would have the opportunity to see him perform in person.
Regardless of how or when it was inspired, Elliott’s discography is a beautiful collection of grief, pain, love, hope, and life, and it’s one that I will always recommend. So go ahead and listen to some Elliott Smith today. In a weird way, it might give you just the push you need to dig out of whatever rut you might feel yourself stuck in and leave you with a rush of sudden optimism, or you might just think it’s pretty. Either/Or.