I self-admittedly fell for Elliott Smith idolization when I was twelve years old. I remember hearing “Between the Bars” for the first time and thinking I understood true pain as I sat atop my IKEA loft bed after a long day of the seventh grade. I probably did know true pain then, as anyone who’s been alive for any length of time does, but the more I listen to Elliott (I can’t help but use his first name as if I knew him) and the older I grow, the more I understand that pain is not a lonely feeling. It is built upon loss or paired with hope or overwhelmed by joy.
Elliott Smith is a name most indie music listeners of any age would recognize, but I’ve found that he is all too often polarized within the sad song realm. Elliott Smith certainly knew how to write a melancholic and agonizingly sorrowful track, but he also knew how to do it with nuance. His lyricism and unmatched natural voice express the very duality I’m describing. His songs are never just sad; they exist as multiplicities.
Listed below are some of my favorite Elliott Smith lyrics that express some version of combined emotion:
Note: All interpretations are my own.
“And it’s okay, I knew exactly what you meant/ When you said you were an accident” – “Drive All Over Town”
Compassion vs. Distraction: Individual trauma combined with mutual understanding creates a space for growth or destruction. It’s hard, but important, to pursue the former.
“And for all you know, you’re the only one who finds it strange” – “Satellite”
A Certain Loneliness: Individuality can be scary and forlorn at times, but it’s imperative to remember the freedom it brings.
“I can sit wondering what in world you think about/ I don’t think I’m ever gonna figure it out” – “I Don’t Think I’m Ever Gonna Figure It Out”
The Hard Truth: We all have that one person we could sit around for hours impossibly attempting to grasp at their inner thoughts, but recognizing that we’ll never know is both a loss and a relief.
“We broke up a month ago/ And I grew up, I didn’t know/ I’d be around the morning after” – “Say Yes”
Pain Comes and Goes: Heartbreak is like nothing else. Actually, sometimes it feels like someone died. Those first few days, weeks, or months are the absolute worst, but it’s worth knowing, you’ll make it to the next morning.
“I’ll tell you why I don’t want to know where you are/ I got a joke I’ve been dying to tell you” – “Pitseleh”
Wanting What You Know You Shouldn’t: Sometimes we want and put much of our thought into things we can’t and shouldn’t have. Knowing your boundaries, as much as they may contradict your desires, is difficult but perhaps worth it.
“A lot of hours to occupy, it was easy when I didn’t know you yet/ Things I’d have to forget/ But I better be quiet now/ I’m tired of wasting my breath/ Carrying on and getting upset” – “Better Be Quiet Now”
A Box In the Attic Labeled “Forget Me”: Change is incredibly hard. Going from one reality to another, especially when it happens quickly, can be all-consuming. At some point, however, putting that person or thing behind you is easier than wasting your energy on old memories or an empty space.
“Haven’t laughed this hard in a long time/ I better stop now before I start crying” – “Twilight”
Comfort In Being Sad: There is both fear and hope in moving from sadness to joy. The change is usually worth it.
“Waiting to start/ Waiting to light/ Waiting until dark” – “New Disaster”
Elliott, even in his saddest and most regretful songs, knew to wait it out. Whether it be good or bad, he knew exactly how to express that there’s always something coming next.
My interpretations don’t just reflect Elliott’s lyrical combination of emotions, but my own combination of clichés and personal experiences. I wish he could explain these songs to me, but I can’t know what I can’t be told, so perhaps these explanations will do for now. I have a feeling they will change as I do.
Here’s to changes,