Elliott Smith – Elliott Smith

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“Needle in the Hay” is a great song; the climax brought on by the muted strums thrown into the full-chord-chug is the album’s best trick, musically speaking, wherein you feel like he’s going to crash if he doesn’t meet the man who’s “gonna make it all okay” soon. And “You ought to be proud that I’m getting good marks” is a horrifying line – he’s not talking about his report card here. 

Closer “The Biggest Lie” is also great, which houses the album’s greatest melodies and has some of his best lyrics. “We’re so very precious, you and I / And everything that you do makes me want to die / Oh I just told the biggest lie” is the most arresting verse on the album from a lyrical point of view because the ambiguity of what he’s calling the lie. “You spent everything you had / Wanted everything you stop that bad” is also a good couplet. 

After that, “Christian Brothers” and “St. Ide’s Heaven” are the album’s greatest draws. In the former, “Fake concern says what’s the matter, man” is a great line that’s actually relatable (because for the most part, this album certainly isnot, but more on that later), and the swear words are used to a good effect which is more than I can say for him swearing later in his discography and the latter actually sounds like it was written while it was happening. And I’m a sucker for the hook on “Clementine” and especially how Elliott Smith leads to it (a gentle slap on the guitar and a resounding but brief silence thereafter), though when he whispers the word “long” in “it seems a long time gone” (at the 1:00 mark), he runs out of breath and the whole thing sounds sour. Really should’ve done another take.

Broadly speaking, however, this is so obviously worse than Either/Or in every capacity. For one thing, there’s just not enough musically happening to keep you around if the lyrics don’t speak to you in any way, and for another thing, the lyrics don’t speak to you in any way. Yes, he’s trying on other instruments: an electric guitar shows up on “Single File” and drums help nudge “Coming Up Roses” along, but compare the use of those instruments to say, “Cupid’s Trick” and “Speed Trials,” respectively, or compare the solo in “The Biggest Lie” to that of “Say Yes.” And “Good to Go” might be the worst song to appear on any studio album released during his lifetime, a truly atrocious piece-of-shit. Musically clunky, because Elliott Smith can’t handle the song’s main hooks that are at least 8 BPMs too fast for his whatever’s-thinner-than-paper singing, but worse than that, worse than the fact that he thought “I wouldn’t need a hero if I wasn’t such a zero” was a rhyme that was worth anything, worse than the fact that he elaborates on how he’s “good to go” (guess where), is the fact that he encourages you to do the same, “You can do it if you want to.” Yeah, not okay. 

Anyway, I already gave the game away in my preceding paragraphs, but barring the ones I’ve mentioned, these lyrics just aren’t as affecting as they are onEither/Or or as people would have you believe. If you hear the sound of a fragile man, it’s because the voice singing them is fragile; if you think these songs are sad, it’s because of Elliott Smith’s story afterwards is sad. On most of these songs, all that Elliott Smith talks about is shooting heroin, and I guarantee most of you won’t or can’t or shouldn’t relate.

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