Publish Our Love: Elliott Smith

Wednesday, July 17, 2019 - 4:42pm

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Design by Kathryn Halverson

You can never publish my love,” Rogue Wave chants, in the song that the title of this series riffs on. Maybe that’s true, and we can never quite account for our love on paper or in print, but we sure can try. That’s what this series is devoted to: publishing our love. Us, the Arts section of The Michigan Daily, talking about artists, some of the people we love the most. Perhaps these are futile approximations of love for the poet who told us we deserve to be heard, the director who changed the way we see the world, the singer we see as an old friend. But who ever said futile can’t still be beautiful?

No other musician epitomizes the tortured artist archetype quite as obviously as Elliott Smith. The six albums he released before his mysterious, premature death at the age of 34 paint a portrait of a deeply troubled, deeply miserable man. In many respects, Elliott was precisely that — tormented, unwell, unhappy.

Most of Elliott’s work is depressing, unquestionably so. It’s filled with implicit and explicit references to drug and alcohol abuse, childhood trauma, anxiety and depression and crushing loneliness. 

But to oversimplify his entire discography with a word as vague and empty as “sad” is, I feel, an injustice to his art. After all, perhaps Elliott’s most recognizable track, “Say Yes,” is an unabashedly sentimental love song about falling in love for what feels like forever. With lyrics like “I’m in love with the world through the eyes of a girl / Who’s still around the morning after,” it’s near impossible to defend the belief that Elliott’s music is without any glimpse of hope. 

Even for the rest of his discography, which admittedly never comes close to the joyful optimism of “Say Yes,” the word “sad” is inadequate. The emotions the music conjures are infinitely more complex than that, culminating in a melting pot of powerful, sometimes contradictory, always familiar feelings, like in the line “Haven’t laughed this hard in a long time, better stop now before I start crying” from the song “Twilight.”

Elliott’s music isn’t just complicated from an emotional standpoint: It’s also rich with impressive technique and profound lyricism. His guitar playing is universally praised and instantly identifiable, with a picking style so specific to him it’s practically impossible to replicate. His talent for articulating both the darkest and brightest parts of himself and his world through language is astounding. Lines like “It’ll make a whisper out of you” from “Condor Ave” haunt me. 

Nevertheless, there is one very apparent, very valid reason why history has remembered Elliott Smith for the sadness of his music. The darkest, most painful aspects of the human experience are simply the aspects Elliott knew most intimately, and was therefore best able to explore artistically. Søren Kierkegaard, a major philosophical influence of Elliott’s, wrote, “My melancholy is the most faithful mistress I have known; what wonder, then, that I love her in return.” No sentence better encapsulates Elliott’s approach to confronting despair through art. Elliott had an unhealthy but nevertheless fascinating relationship with his own sadness, which he even gave its own character in the song “Miss Misery,” writing, “Do you miss me, Miss Misery, like you say you do?” His sadness, his Miss Misery, is present in nearly every one of his songs, even the relatively happier ones. 

Elliott’s brutal, painful honesty about the true nature of his emotions is exactly why I’ve loved him for so many years, despite how ugly and frightening it can be, especially in songs like “King’s Crossing” and “Needle in the Hay.” I love his music because I see parts of myself in it, the parts I’m most afraid of yet most desperate to acquaint myself with. He describes my feelings — especially the ones I’ve buried inside of myself — better than I can, and in doing so validates them, makes them palpable, makes them real. He makes me feel less afraid of my own darkness. He makes me feel less alone. 

I’m not the only one who feels this way about Elliott. Millions and millions of others have found themselves reflected in his art, and I take great comfort in that. I take comfort in the knowledge that, as demonstrated by the massive fanbase Elliott’s work has garnered, the facets of myself I find in Elliott’s music are not abnormal, wrong or specific to me, because others have them too. For me, the relatability of Elliott’s music serves as a testament to what I’ve always believed to be art’s greatest miracle: the ability to break down the barriers that divide us, counteracting loneliness and ultimately remedying it. 

I will never fully know, fully understand the person Elliott was, despite how much I want to. I was three years old when he died — I never got a chance to know him. No matter how many articles I read, podcasts I listen to, documentaries I watch about him, he will forever be a mystery to me. The essence of him couldn’t possibly be contained within a mere six albums. But sometimes it feels that it is, and I cling to that feeling. To paraphrase my favorite lyric of Elliott’s, I’m never gonna know him now, but I’m gonna love him anyhow.