I have been pretty unhappy lately, and for anyone who is well-versed in the art of being unhappy, you’ll know that there are a few things that you really have to do when you’re feeling super-terrible. The first thing is that you watch lots of TV dramas from your highschool years. You also pick up a vice that you thought you’d really gotten over, like eating too much chocolate or smoking or throwing things at passing cars from your balcony. But easily the most important thing – and if you get this one wrong, you’ll be a mopey bastard for three times the amount of time you need to be – is immersing yourself in sad, romantic music. I’m actually doing myself a favour by spending some quality time with Elliott Smith, arguably up there with Morissey and Mr Buckley as the world’s best practitioner in personal pain, so early in February. By the time Valentine’s Day rolls around, I’ll be so totally submerged that I won’t even realise that this is the day I’m supposed to be unhappy.
Artists like Elliott Smith have an uneasy and, at times, unfair legacy among fans. I know diehards who will listen to him every day of the week, but for most of us, we turn to him when we need someone to hold a mirror up to our own feelings. When you’re the guy who trades in misery (and has a famous song with that word in it), chances are the music-devouring masses are going to drop into your wavelength when something messed up happens. I mean, nobody wakes up on a sunny day with their partner bringing them breakfast in bed and starts playing ‘Lover, You Should Have Come Over.’ It’s not general-purpose music, it’s highly specific. That’s the unfair part, because Smith’s writing is so incredibly fantastic that there’s no reason there’s one of him to every fifty spins of The Strokes in our Most Played lists. And more importantly, if we just pulled our heads out of our navels every so often, we might realise that as fucked up as his life was, Smith knew how to write a perfectly warm, happy song, too. Even if it sounded like the opposite.
Elliot’s intonation, vocal attack and arranging meant that even when he was celebrating something, as he was on ‘Say Yes’, the beautiful closer to his debut record Either/Or, he came off like he was crying. But that’s not what’s happening here. The chords are essentially major. The touch is delicate, yes, but it’s a good thing. As he said in a 1998 interview: “‘Say Yes’ is, like, a love song and my mood was completely reversed. ‘Say Yes’ was written about someone particular and I almost never do that. I was really in love with someone.” I find that pretty special, particularly when I’ve been so selfishly using Smith’s records for my own personal wallowing of late. Artists are sometimes consternated by their followers for attempting new styles, or delving into instrumentation that is at odds with their seeming core message. Smith changed the game just by changing his attitude, and I only really noticed the fifteenth time around. That is a truly excellent achievement.
‘Say Yes’ succeeds where certain other songs on this album didn’t in its deceptive simplicity. It’s a traditional four chord ballad that actually has quite a few more chords than that, with a melody that can dip into minor keys with a single inflection (you’ll hear this when he sings the words ‘the morning af-ter’). It’s light on words but those words are really devastating: “But now I feel, changed around/ and instead of falling down/ I’m standing up the morning after”. Writers who aspire to be actual writers would kill to come up with something this succinctly eloquent, let alone match it to a melody so attractive that they used it in a feature film starring Ben Affleck and Matt Damon. Smith may be a musical mirror to our feelings, but he’s an ambiguous one, too. And perhaps it’s the realisation that even our most beloved tragics are also liable to bouts of happiness that shows that there really is light at the end of what seems like a never-ending tunnel. There really is an Elliott Smith for all seasons.
Elliott Smith – ‘Say Yes’