Top Ten Ranked Most Upsetting Elliott Smith Songs and Why
For a mentally precarious, alcohol-addicted and pseudo-Nihilistic waster like me, Elliott Smith belongs in my orbit — or I belong in his — along with other typically troubled and misunderstood artists such as Daniel Johnston, Mark Linkous, Mark Kozelek, Stephen Merritt, Cat Power, et al. But that doesn’t mean you have to have bounded heedlessly and senselessly down these dark alleyways of the soul to appreciate pure emotion when it’s singing to you like it was singing only to you. You can love Elliott Smith when you’ve never had your heart broken, or when nobody’s ever called you out for being a waste of skin. But really? I feel like the whole experience is gloriously and ambrosially amplified when you can listen intently, and you can empathise with his lyrics about what it feels like to be a living piece of shit who doesn’t deserve even a semblance or imitation of happiness and you just need to get used to being alone. Like if you’ve never felt like that, I’m really happy for you, that’s great! But if you have? Sit down and listen up. You’re going to like this. Elliott Smith is ours now, and we’re going to protect him, and whether you believe his girlfriend killed him by stabbing him through the heart in one, desperate, impassioned moment, or whether it was him who executed himself in such a violent and hateful way, it doesn’t matter. Neither is an end we would want Elliott Smith to meet, but neither is one we are particularly surprised at.
When I dive into Elliott Smith it causes me to check myself; am I listening to the same songs over and over? Why am I doing that? Am I okay? Have I let things slip and failing to notice? And maybe this is slightly histrionic but really? I admire an artist who makes me question my own sanity on the reg. So, for that reason, I have ranked what I think are the most upsetting Elliott Smith songs from 1–10, and their reasons for being so goddamned, straight-up distressing.
1.Go By (New Moon, 2007) — This song feels to me like Elliott Smith is ripping into a loved one with all kinds of criticisms and keen observations he’s been practising in his head whilst simmering for hours, but realises pretty quick he’s just accusing his sweetheart of all the horrid shit he’s pulling on a daily basis without even realising it, and it’s dawning on him not only how fucked up he is but exactly how he got to be that way in the first place, that being fucked up is ingrained in him to such an extent that his own shit-heap behaviour is impulsive and subconscious. But the achingly hurtful bit in this song, for me, is: “Shrill and small echo down the hall, repeating pet names” — it just sounds so lonely and desperate. He doesn’t want to hear those pet names anymore but he might die without them. Following up with: “you’re only passing by”; the song is a wasteland.
2. Pitseleh (XO, 1998) — Fuck me this one should be number 1, actually. I never really gave this song my full attention until I reached a stage in my life where I had to; it came and grabbed me by the hair and plunged me underwater and expected me to adapt to my new situation of drowning immediately and without question. It came on shuffle one day when I was, again, lonely and desperate. I feel like this song is about profound grief — a person has died or maybe a person has simply walked away, but whichever has happened, you’re done, and I don’t know which loss is greater sometimes. At least if someone dies you know why they’re not returning your calls. All of it is so hard, it’s a struggle, and the opening verse jumps right in with: “I’ve got a joke I’ve been dying to tell you”. It’s just that utter, dark night of loss, that powerlessness, the futility of ever loving anyone who would dare to die or even just leave. He was a bad influence in that person’s life, he accepts that, but that’s only making things worse. And then, “no-one deserves this” pleads in and feels so meek and frightened when stood up against the heartrending piano that just strides on in without warning immediately after.
3. Waltz #1 (XO, 1998)— This song makes me think of spooky, abandoned ballrooms. For full melodrama, my brain conjures up a bride alone in the ballroom, dancing as if someone is leading her but there’s nobody there (but I used to be really emo back in the mid-00s so that’s probably why). Of course the line that ruins me is: “what was I supposed to say?” — well? What was he supposed to say, and what awful thing has happened as a consequence of him not saying it? What missed opportunity? What has gone that can never return?
4.Roman Candle (Roman Candle, 1994)— This song has reached the end of its tether. It came into my life in a big way when I was on a mental health ward after ‘doing an Elliott’, listening to it was like he was pleading with me and only me because only I, at that moment in time, got it. “I’m hallucinating” he sings and repeats; he’s done pretending it’s not happening and now he just needs someone, anyone, to grab him by the scruff of his shirt and pull him back to safety right away. He thought he had this under control; he doesn’t. Stop just watching and go help him for Christ’s sake you ghoul, where’s your humanity? Quick, go.
5.Single File (Elliott Smith, 1995)— The reason I love this song is more musical than it is lyrical, though of course the lyrics are always going to be a big deal in any Elliott Smith song. But it’s just that slippy, slidey guitar in the confident first few bars that pulls me right in. Elliott uses the term “idiot kid” a few times in his songs, I’ve noticed, especially when he’s singing about his relationship to heroin, and it appears in this one with biting delivery: “you idiot kid / your arm’s got a death in it”. Fuck mate, we’re here for you and we love you no matter what. First step is admitting you have a problem.
6.Everything Reminds Me Of Her (Figure 8, 2000)— This song pretends it’s a sincere love song, but it’s not, it’s lying to us, and its placement on the album right before “Everything Means Nothing To Me” is nothing short of careful. At first, it’s like “aww nice one Elliott, you’ve got yourself a crush, good on ya! Go get ’em, slugger!” But pretty soon it’s like “fuck, Elliott’s taken it one too far again, on the first date he read her tea-leaves and revealed to her she’s going to die in a violent road traffic accident before she’s 40”. I don’t know if he’s singing about someone who is sworn to another, or if it’s something more nebulous making this relationship not work out, but in this song I really feel like he’s been given the raw end of the deal here and he’s just sitting in the burning building humming happy tunes to himself, telling himself shit’s going to be okay. This song is the musical equivalent of the razor-laden candy bars we’re supposed to believe sadistic old women give to unsuspecting trick-or-treaters. The myth is real, and it’s too depressing a comment on humanity to process all in one go. Also, the way he sings: “so if I seem a little out of it — sorry” is the most sarcastic “sorry” anyone has ever expressed. Beautiful.
7.Alameda (Either/Or, 1997) — “Nobody broke your heart. You broke your own ’cause you can’t finish what you start”. Thanks, Elliott. I needed reminding of that. I’m so grateful you’re always on hand for an unsolicited reality check just when I need literally anything but. You know who’d never do this to me? Sufjan Stevens would never do this to me.
8.Between The Bars (Either/Or, 1997) — If you’re an alcoholic like me, and you’re also a fan of Elliott Smith (and I’m willing to bet there’s an awful lot of us), this song has probably made you wish you were dead at several points in your miserable life, but you were too afraid to take definite steps into dying at that time, so you just got more and more loaded and listened to this song on repeat whilst chain-smoking with your head spinning and your mouth all dry, quietly hoping that death would come as an accident, a tragedy, and you could slip away, sweetly out-of-control. This song is disappointed you’re an alcoholic and wants to tell you that this is lethal, it’s fatal — but it’s not going to lecture you because it understands exactly why you got addicted in the first place, it understands that your alcoholism makes sense and you, like Elliott, are just living on the margins of society. Besides, it needs a drinking buddy and you’re the only loser still standing, so it tells you, as it pours you your whisky, “the potential you’ll be that you’ll never see; promises you’ll only make — drink up with me now”. Cheers, and Good Health!
9. High Times (New Moon, 2007) — I originally went for Going Nowhere but changed it for High Times because whilst they’re both upsetting, High Times has a lot more of that squirming urgency and frantic misunderstanding. Going Nowhere is knowingly morose, but High Times seems to come from a place of panicked unknowing — someone’s gone away, someone’s out of reach, and nothing’s working to get hold of them because it can’t happen, it’s futile, you’re utterly helpless. “I’m so sick and tired trying to change your mind when it’s so easy to disconnect mine”. I can’t even begin with how much that lyric alone means to me. Why can’t people just do and say the logical thing? Why are we the ones left to do all the guessing? I mean we’re drunk, for starters.
10. Seen How Things Are Hard (New Moon, 2007) — in some ways, I’m saving the best ’til last. This song has Elliott’s typical “whispery, spider-web thin delivery” that an early reviewer cottoned on to and is now ubiquitous amongst most discussions of Elliott Smith’s work, and this shaky, insecure guitar with these fucking sarcastic sleigh bells over the top as its only percussion, unrelenting; this is the world’s worst Christmas and it’s all your fucking fault. I feel like, with this song, he’s watched someone close to him go down a terrible and horrific path that potentially could mean the end of them for good, but he empathises, because he’s starting to go down it himself now and he’s going to barrel down it with great brio as if the dark path were forged for him, the path loves him. He’s seen how things are hard; he loves you, though, and he doesn’t see why that’s not enough. “I can’t make corrections for you. You have to help me patch things up” — he is more than aware that whoever he’s singing to isn’t going to help him patch things up. Why would they? They’ve long gone. They’re not coming back. Just like everyone else, ever. He’s ruined both his life and theirs. But hey, it’s Christmas! Have a drink! Be merry! Good will to all men, ’tis the season!