Remembering Elliott Smith: A Mixtape

Looking back at the indie hero's career ahead of the tenth anniversary of his death.

It would have been Elliott Smith’s 44th birthday today.

Ten years ago, the singer-songwriter’s life ended in a way that resembled both the cold cruelty and warm romanticism often displayed in his music, with a knife right to the heart.

I remember the wet October morning I first heard of his death. I was getting ready for school when a Triple J newsreader made the announcement. Smith had been one of my favourite musicians throughout my teens and as those words, “Singer Elliott Smith has died from a suspected suicide,” rang from my bedside radio I was shocked, heartbroken, and most depressingly of all, not entirely surprised.

There was such melancholy entwined in Smith’s music that his death seemed inevitable. He’d struggled with addiction for years; a battle that he fought as much privately in rehab, as he had publicly in the lyrics of his songs. These addictions took a toll on many of his final performances between 2000-2002, with shows being spoiled by forgotten lyrics or mixed-up arrangements and even alleged episodes of him falling asleep mid-song. One reviewer at the time went as far as to say, “It would not surprise me at all if Elliott Smith ends up dead within a year.”

But it was not drugs or booze that killed Elliott Smith. He was reportedly finally in a healthy, sober space and at the tail end of recording what would be his final album when he died. Instead, he received two stab wounds to the chest in what is generally accepted to be an extremely violent, self-mutilating suicide — although speculation still abounds that his girlfriend at the time was in some way implicated in his death.

However it happened, Elliott was gone. His solo career only spanned nine years and six albums but the impact of his music was immense, so much so that it continues to leave its ‘XO’-shaped fingerprints all over some of the most celebrated music of today.

When you look at the musicians that have capitalized on the groundwork laid by Smith — Sufjan Stevens, Bon Iver, Andrew Bird, Iron and Wine, The Decemberists, The Shins — it’s difficult not to speculate that if he’d survived just a few more years, the internet would have carried his career even further than the impressive distance it had already travelled, and that he might have sat alongside the likes of Wilco and The Flaming Lips as the godfathers of modern indie rock.

But that’s all speculation, and all we have now is the incredible body of music Smith created while he was alive. Here are ten essential Elliott Smith songs that celebrate his equally triumphant and tragic tale and still resonate deeply ten years on from his death.

‘Needle In The Hay’ – Elliott Smith (1995)

After a career that initially began as a co-member of the indie rock outfit Heatmiser, Smith stepped out on his own and began making songs on borrowed four-track recorders in the room under the stairs of his rainy Portland house (fun fact: James Mercer of The Shins now lives in the same house). With two guitar tracks and two vocal tracks, Smith was able to create simple yet intricately woven sonic tapestries that would become his first two records: Roman Candle and Elliott Smith. ‘Needle In The Hay’ captures the intimacy of those first lo-fi recordings, and still sounds like you’re locked under the stairs with him when you listen to it today.

‘Say Yes’ – Elliott Smith (1995)

If the line “I’m in love with the world / through the eyes of a girl / who’s still around the morning after” were sung by any other artist, it might have been dismissed as twee. But there is so much emotional weight in Smith’s voice, the sense that he did finally find someone who he could trust and enjoy the world with… Well, it’s easier to just listen to the song than to express it in words.

‘No Name #3’ – Roman Candle (1994)

When a Portland-based film director decided to put some of his favourite local singer-songwriter’s music in his new film, no one could have predicted the magnitude of attention that it would generate for Smith. Gus Van Sant used cuts from Roman Candle, Elliott Smith and Either/Or on the soundtrack to Good Will Hunting, as well as asking Elliott to write a song specifically for the film in ‘Miss Misery’, moving Smith into a blinding new spotlight in the process. “How you like them apples?!”, indeed.

‘Miss Misery’, live from the 1998 Oscars – Good Will Hunting OST (1997)

It’s still surreal looking back all these years later at Smith walking out into the middle of that giant Oscars set — his crumpled white suit and greasy hair standing in stark contrast to the preen and polish of the world’s most watched awards ceremony. But the guy you could have seen playing for a couple of bucks at your local coffee shop just a year earlier didn’t let the gravity of the event get to him: he played a careful rendition of ‘Miss Misery’, with the song given even more emotional strength by the swelling strings of the Oscars house orchestra.

‘Sweet Adeline’ – XO (1998)

Following the Oscar nomination, Smith signed to a big label in DreamWorks and had a much larger audience hanging on his every word, but he didn’t fail to deliver with his next album, XO. Opener ‘Sweet Adeline’ commenced with the same lonely guitar-and-voice combo we were so accustomed to, but a minute-and-a-half into the track, the collapsing guitar notes were suddenly crushed by a wall of sound, as a full studio band takes over the mix, ushering in a new period for Elliott as a composer.

‘Between The Bars’ – Either/Or (1997)

Despite his new success and sound, it was only a year earlier that Smith had released what is probably his starkest song about his long love affair with booze. Delicate and tender, it highlights the sad relationship he experienced at his peak between substance abuse and creativity, and despite his growing prowess, his demons still remained.

‘Waltz #2’ – XO (1998)

This was the first song I ever taught myself to play on guitar, which I think lays bare the simple genius of Smith’s songwriting skills. ‘Waltz #2’ is simple drum patterns, basic guitar notes and carefully chosen piano keys, all brought together by a man with a natural sense of melody, who could casually craft a song that was much more than the sum of its parts.

‘Son Of Sam’ – Figure 8 (2000)

‘Son Of Sam’ was the first of Smith’s songs that I actually remember getting regular airplay in Australia. Figure 8’s cover art has also become synonymous with Elliott’s enduring image, the singer-songwriter standing awkwardly in front of the swirling red, blue and white lines on the front of Solutions Audio-Video Repair on L.A.’s Sunset Boulevard. The site has since become a shrine to his memory.

‘Memory Lane’ – From A Basement On The Hill (2004)

Like many Elliott Smith fans, I was both equally excited and terrified at the prospect of Smith’s final posthumous release. Was it going to be another Jeff Buckley situation, with everything he ever cut to tape on a whim being released as yet another limited edition item to capitalize on his legacy?

Thankfully, From A Basement stands shoulder-to-shoulder with any of Smith’s other great works, its songs still flooded with that signature Elliott sound, but with a haunting production quality that made songs like ‘Memory Lane’ truly feel like the final celebration of his entire career.

‘Fond Farewell’ – From A Basement On The Hill (2004)

Whether it was intended as a goodbye letter or not, for many ‘Fond Farewell’ holds up as Smith’s final testament to the world. The lyrics — “The cold comfort of the in-between / a little less than a human being / a little less than a happy high / a little less than a suicide…” — almost perfectly encapsulate his uncomfortable stance in the spotlight in the last few years of his life, as well as eerily predicting his ultimate demise.

The song still packs a walloping emotional uppercut almost a decade after its release, so much so that I still struggle to listen to it at times. Like the rest of From A Basement On The Hill, it’s a heartbreaking reminder of the potential he had to make so much more.

Nathan Wood is a Sydney-based writer and occasional podcaster. He has written for publications around the world and enjoys the company of publicans near his home in Marrickville.