A Shining Path, A Clouded Mind

Elliott Smith was already gone for close to four years before I paid much mind to his music. Like any number of other ‘discoveries’ in the late 2000s, he came to my attention through my “Aimee Mann Radio” Pandora channel. First it was “Son of Sam,” then “Wouldn’t Mama Be Proud” and “Baby Britain.” Soon thereafter I picked up Figure 8, which includes the first two of those songs; it’s absolutely one of my favorite albums from this century.

It wasn’t that I was unaware of Smith prior to then. I’d seen Good Will Hunting, I’d caught his name mentioned on public radio, I even remember hearing about his death in real time. My impression was that I might like his stuff, but the period from around 2000 to 2007 was one of very little delving into the current music scene.

I visited Greg in early 2010 while attending a math conference in DC. After mentioning how hooked I’d become on Figure 8, he trotted out the excellent “Waltz #2” from XO for me. (One thing I dig about Smith is his frequent use of 3/4 and 6/8 time—also check out “Stupidity Tries” or “Easy Way Out” on Figure 8.)

I seem to prefer Smith’s later, fuller, more Beatlesque material, which I don’t doubt puts me at odds with many Elliott-philes. In addition to the songs I’ve already mentioned, big faves from Figure 8 include “Junk Bond Trader,” “In the Lost and Found (Honky Bach),” and “Can’t Make a Sound.”

This Sunday will mark the 15th anniversary of Smith’s suicide, at the far-too-early age of 34. I wrote a short note about him on Facebook at this time two years ago, which included this sentence: “He was both an amazing talent and one more cautionary tale about the perils of addiction and depression.” I don’t wish to boil down his life to a single line—I can’t know his trials and his demons, though, so I don’t want to say too much more. I’m just very sorry he (along with so many others) wasn’t able to hold it together, to make things work.





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