Happy Birthday, Elliott Smith: The Indie Rock Legend's 10 Best Songs
The singer-songwriter would have been 51 today.
Today, August 6, 2020, Elliott Smith would have turned 51 years old.
Smith was born in Omaha, Nebraska, raised in north Texas, and spent a good portion of his life in Portland, Oregon before settling in Los Angeles. Before his sudden and mysterious death in 2003, the prolific singer-songwriter released five studio albums of poignant, rootsy indie rock, with his sixth studio album and a compilation of rarities being released posthumously. He became known for his dismal lyrics—often referencing his mental health and substance abuse habits—and his distinctively whispery vocals, which he often double-tracked to create an eerie, textured ambiance.
Smith was a big fan of '60s and '70s rock greats like the Beatles and Big Star, and he imposed a similar lasting legacy on future generations of musicians; his influence can be heard prominently in the works of folk rock musicians like Conor Oberst and Alex G. The National reference Smith in their 2013 song "Fireproof," while Phoebe Bridgers' track "Punisher" imagines what it would be like to meet her late idol.
In honor of Smith's birthday, we've done the difficult task of rounding up his 10 best songs. If you've never dived into his discography, here's a great place to start—you're in for a treat.
10. “Somebody That I Used to Know”
Sometimes the only thing more heartbreaking than a terminated romantic relationship is growing distant from a friend. Both could be applied to "Somebody That I Used to Know," a jangly tune about letting go. "I know you don't think you did me wrong / And I can't stay this mad for long," he sings, a welcome reminder of the power of forgiveness.
9. “Condor Ave.”
Smith's "debut" solo album, Roman Candle, wasn't originally intended to see the light of day, as he was still playing in his band Heatmiser at the time. But Smith's then-girlfriend saw something special in the homemade quality of Roman Candle. She brought it to Portland-based record label Cavity Search, who couldn't pass it up releasing it as a full album. The lo-fi tune "Condor Ave." shows the potential of Smith as a solo recording artist and lyrical storyteller.
8. “Needle in the Hay”
It was no secret that Smith used hard drugs. "Needle in the Hay" is one of the more obvious examples of drugs in his music, the "needle" in question being heroin. Backed by just staccato guitar strums that mimic a rapid heartbeat, the song makes for good use of double entendres: The line "you should be proud that I'm getting good marks" recalls both track marks or grades in school, while "haystack charm around your neck" could refer to either Haystack Rock in Oregon or a noose.
7. “Ballad of Big Nothing”
The subject of "Ballad of Big Nothing" is a deadbeat addict–in his words, "a tired man with only hours to go just waiting to be taken away." While the song bears a bright, tongue-in-cheek feel, it carries a much heavier weight in the context of Smith's own experience with drugs. After seeing Smith fumble a set in 2002, one critic wrote: "It would not surprise me at all if Elliott Smith ends up dead within a year."
6. “Everything Reminds Me of Her”
Many of Smith's lyrics are open to interpretation. Such is the case with "Everything Reminds Me of Her," a song that seems to invoke a bygone lover as much as Smith's guilt about leaving his mother at age 14. "I never really had a problem because of leaving," he sings, a line that could be interpreted as people leaving him, or his own tendencies to distance himself.
5. “Baby Britain”
Smith's sound grew bigger and brighter on his major label debut, 1998's XO. One of its singles "Baby Britain" (his nickname for the United States) is one of the catchiest and most upbeat tunes of his career, especially reminiscent of early Beatles records. But despite going in a more pop-oriented direction sonically, "Baby Britain" still encapsulates Smith's witty lyricism: "The dead soldiers lined up on the table / Still prepared for an attack," goes one line, perhaps as much a political statement as it is a remark about his drinking habits.
It's a tale as old as the city itself: entertainment industry hopefuls flocking to Los Angeles, hoping to make a name for themselves among a sea of competition. Smith was usually associated with cutting his teeth in the Pacific Northwest indie scene, but as his music gained popularity and a major label deal was becoming more realistic, he debated what a move to L.A. would mean for his career. He ponders these pros and cons on "Angeles," singing: "All your secret wishes could right now be coming true / And be forever with my poison arms around you."
3. “Say Yes”
"Say Yes" proves how some of the simplest songwriting can be the most powerful. Smith claims he wrote the song in five minutes after a particularly gruelling breakup. The song follows him after a one-night stand with an especially optimistic woman who, instead of allowing Smith to heal, reminds him just how much he loves his ex. "Say Yes" explores the sadness of a severed romance but offers a glimmer of hope that the truest loves find their way back.
2. “Between the Bars”
Perhaps the most subtly gorgeous song in Smith's catalog—and one of his most popular thanks to films like Good Will Hunting and Stuck in Love—"Between the Bars" looks at life and love through the lens of an alcoholic. With just spare guitar strums backing him, Smith sings of the power his addiction has over his everyday encounters. When he whispers, "I'll kiss you again between the bars," the word "bars" could be referring to either drinking establishments or a prison cell. Both options, in Smith's case, are equally debilitating.
1. “Waltz #2 (XO)
Smith moved away from his mother, the largely-presumed subject of "Waltz #2," as a teenager to live with his father in Portland. The song reflects on his mother's marriage to his stepfather, who was allegedly abusive to Smith. "XO, Mom / It's OK, it's all right, nothing's wrong / Tell Mr. Man with impossible plans to just leave me alone," he belts.
While a damaged relationship certainly isn't a rare topic for songwriters to cover, "Waltz #2" is a gutting depiction of a broken family. "I'm never gonna know you now / But I'm gonna love you anyhow," Smith repeats, grieving the relationship he once had with his mother but continuing to love her unconditionally, regardless.
Now, years after his death, "Waltz #2"strikes a chord with Smith's devoted fans who will never meet their hero or see him perform. We might only know Elliott Smith through his music and stories passed down from his contemporaries, but we'll always hold him close.