I told absolutelyadam that I was going to write a post about Muse, but this isn’t that post. The thoughts I have about Muse are just not turning into words well enough for me.
I’ve talked about Elliott Smith here before, I know. Namely, I talked about his last album. And I mentioned one of his songs as one I’d love to cover someday. But this post is about Elliott Smith more generally.
For better or for worse, I somehow associate Elliott Smith with a few things: rainy season in South Florida (which we are headed into early this year), France, and my undergraduate thesis. The albumFigure 8in its entirety reminds me of my exchange student trip to France, understandably because I listened to it constantly—on the flight over, while I was lying in bed nursing my sprained ankle (acquired in the Musée D’Orsay), while I was on the plane into Switzerland. There’s a song, “Color Bars” that brings back for me the experience of being in a van, early in the morning, driving from Charles de Gaulle to the hotel we stayed at briefly in Paris. The blur of colors and shapes. “Junk Bond Trader” I somehow associate with Virginia Woolf’sMrs. Dalloway. I think it might have something to do with the bell-sounds in the song, and the bells that recur in the book, but I’m not about to re-read a book I had briefly memorized to see if that’s it. I’ll probably one day devote an entire post toFigure 8.
The summer before I started serious work on my undergrad thesis, I formed an inescapable association between Elliott Smith’s music and the rainy season. I listened to Either/Orand XOcompulsively all that summer, particularly Either/Or. There’s just something about that album that sounds as if it’s being filtered through clouds. It has that gritty blue-gray light, that sultry, humid feel. One of the things I love about the album, and I have no idea how intentional it was, were the odd high-pitched tones that recur in it. For example: “Pictures of Me”. The bright synth-type tone at the beginning just sort of makes it for me, somehow. If I hear a version that doesn’t have that tone, it isn’t the same song. A similar high-pitched tone shows up in one of my all-time favorite Elliott Smith songs, “Angeles”; it sort of fades away without you noticing it, unless you’re really listening hard. And the finger-picking is, to me at least, reminiscent of raindrops; so intricate in rhythm and seemingly random, but cohesive.
Other songs, for example, “Alameda,” seemed to come on right as the rain would start, whatever I was doing; walking to the bus stop, walking around campus, hanging out in my room. Unsurprisingly, for a song that starts with the lyrics “You walk down Alameda…” it has a good walking rhythm, with the kind of harmony Smith seemed to create so effortlessly.
The whole album is like the long, rainy days of summer in Florida. Down, but not necessarily depressing. The thing that I will always admire in Elliott Smith is his ability to create stunningly beautiful music that accompanied dark lyrics, and I feel like Either/Orwas sort of the beginning of being able to really see that ability. His earlier efforts were beautiful and sad, but they don’t have the same melancholy to them. They’re more sad, even upset, than they are beautiful. Either/Or, its name fittingly taken from a treatise by Kierkegaard, is where I was able to see the fundamental fusion of gorgeous sound with dark material.