It’s been seven years since Elliott Smith passed. In the decade he spent as a solo musician, he seemingly never stopped recording, leaving behind dozens of unreleased tracks. Many of these stunningly consistent songs have been released — on the excellent From a Basement on the Hill and New Moon compilations — but more undeniable classics exist only on ever-dwindling fan sites and message boards (rest in peace, ElliottSmithBSides.com). In an ideal world, though, the best of Smith’s B-sides would be collected and released in proper form, too, and here’s what we think that EP should look like.
B-side to “Needle in the Hay”
“Some Song” is like the uglier, darker cousin to “Needle in the Hay. The latter song cloaked its meaning in adult abstraction; the former, like a pissed-off teenager, let it all hang out. Here Smith provides a rare glimpse into his tortured past. The song’s vocals are double-tracked, and while one track says “how they beat you up week after week,” the other subs “how they” for “Charlie” — a reference to Smith’s abusive stepfather. By hiding Charlie’s name in the mix, Smith, wittingly or not, adds the perfect detail to his portrait of a scared, confused kid who doesn’t know what to say or where to go.
Recorded in 1997, remastered in 2009
Smith’s high school band was called Stranger than Fiction, and anyone who’s seen his performance at the 1998 Oscars knows how perfectly that phrase fits Smith’s too-short career. This song dates back to that high school band, although the version that most people are familiar with was recorded by Larry Crane in 1997 and remastered by him just last year. It’s that latter version that’s a must-have for Smith fans — or for pretty much anyone who likes slightly off-kilter orchestral pop, a demographic much larger than the term “off-kilter orchestral pop” may imply.
“A Living Will”
B-side to “Son of Sam”
Smith’s Figure 8 period is generally considered his worst, and not without good reason. For all its elaborate orchestration, his early ’00s output could sometimes feel a bit lacking emotionally. But it’s still a treat to hear Smith sound not just “OK” or “not miserable” but actually, genuinely happy. “Son of Sam,” though it may have been about a serial killer, was downright joyous. “A Living Will,” its B-side, mostly does away with the gloomy subject matter, making it one of Smith’s only true anthems.
“Let’s Turn the Record Over”
Recorded in 2000
It’s tempting to interpret every Smith song through the lens of his crippling drug addiction, but this song just begs for it. “The devil’s on Bonnie Brae,” Smith sings, referencing an infamous L.A. drug spot before imploring you to “pick your poison.” And were this song recorded by Smith five years earlier, it probably would have ended right there — our hero getting high, hating himself, and calling it a day. But this was a song about turning the record over, about changing things for the better. Unfortunately, Smith couldn’t convince himself to follow through on his own advice.
Recorded early 2000s
On his time spent writing “True Love,” Smith has said that “those weren’t very happy days.” Questions of whether or not they were ever happy days aside, one can get a sense, from the song itself, of why that might have been the case. Here, Smith undertakes the challenge of reconciling his earlier, more intimate work with his increasingly ornate tendencies — tendencies that, with Figure 8, had lost him some of his core audience. That he succeeds so fully only makes the thought of what Smith could have done harder to bear. When this Jon Brion-produced, string-laden track leaked on the third anniversary of Smith’s death, it felt like an opulent treat. Four years later, it still does.