The late, great Elliott Smith was a complicated human being and artist, from his unique, multi-layered techniques to his very soft and murmuring voice that articulated vibes of depression and raw poetry. He ultimately succumbed to odd cases of paranoia and drug addiction, eventually committing suicide by stabbing in 2003. An Oregon resident, Smith rose to popularity and acclaim with his wide range of musical talents, playing several different instruments in addition to the guitar. On his self-titled album from 1995, he utilizes a heavy presence of acoustic guitar, which proves very effective and even experimental in the songs – for it’s a fact that most studio albums dealing with the alternative/rock genres feature mostly electric guitar riffs and the like.
This raw and stripped-bare aesthetic on Elliott Smith makes it quite dark, although I would argue that it does a great job at tackling issues of depression. Regardless, it’s one of his better and more memorable albums because it subverts the alternative to suit Smith’s vision.
The album kicks off with his most famous track “Needle in the Hay.” It’s an intoxicating song that gives me the chills every time I hear it, especially when used beautifully in Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums during a scene of attempted suicide involving Luke Wilson’s character. Additionally, for a loyal cover that does the piece justice, look to YouTube sensation PewDiePie’s rendition.
Much like theater practitioner Jerzy Grotowski, who spoke of stripping bare the theater and its mode of presentation in Towards a Poor Theatre, Smith strips bare this musical genre and its conventions. He gives us a “poor” alternative album, complete with raw emotion, drug implications, cynicism and so on. His vocals are perceptibly cracking and longing and whispery, and although he was known for this, it’s particularly prominent in Elliott Smith because of its intimate acoustic accompaniment throughout.
Smith went on to contribute to scores and soundtracks for short films and, most notably, Gus Van Sant’s Good Will Hunting. For the Oscar-winning feature film, he recorded “Miss Misery,” for which he received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song, and an orchestral variant of his own “Between the Bars” in collaboration with the film’s composer Danny Elfman.
Smith is a talented and tragic artistic persona from recent memory. His experimentation and need to distinguish himself while effectively representing his individuality can be traced throughout his work. His music is not only great for studying or taking scenic road trips, but also for creative inspiration and even therapeutic purpose.
Unfortunately for Smith, he could not be saved by his own work, but hopefully that work and expression can save others.
“Needle in the Hay” is perfect for getting your feet wet with Smith’s music. If that powerhouse track doesn’t do it for you, then nothing will. He is a great musician of the recent past and deserves to be heard for years to come.