Today would have been the 43rd birthday of the artist born Steven Paul Smith, but better known to the world as Elliott. From his work with Pacific Northwestern noisemakers Heatmiser through his six brilliant solo albums to the wealth of demos and live bootlegs featuring unreleased songs that continue to surface today, Smith’s oeuvre is an embarrassment of lyrical riches.
Whether offering a nuanced glimpse into devastating family dynamics, detailing his longtime struggle with depression, or enjoying an occasional well-earned bout of cautious optimism, Smith wrote with rare grace and power. Pretty as his melodies were, and gentle as his vocals could be, his songs were never twee. Rather, his work was characterized by brutal honesty and beauty illuminating some of the harshest of subjects. While impossible to make a definitive list, below are ten notable lyrical highlights in chronological release-date order, broken down by Stereo IQ editor Nicole Solomon.
10. “She took the Oldsmobile out past Condor Avenue / Cops were running around the scene looking for some kind of clue / They never get uptight when a moth gets crushed / Unless the light bulb really loved him very much.” — Elliott Smith, “Condor Ave” Lyrics.
Smith empathetically and poetically spins a tale of a woman fleeing a bad domestic situation while Smith expresses contempt for law enforcement—a regular theme in his work. The fact that this may be a child’s impressively mature address to his mother makes it all the more heartwrenching.
9. “Church bells and now I’m awake and I guess it must be some kind of holiday / I can’t seem to join in the celebration / But I’ll go to the service and I’ll go to pray / And I’ll sing the praises of my makers name / like I was as good as she made me / And I wanted her to tell me that she would never wake me. — Elliott Smith, “Last Call” Lyrics
This one is another early song expressing desperate, escapist, suicidal desire. At the end of the song, the insomniac narrator “lying here waiting for sleep to overtake me” repeats his wish eight times, turning it into a hypnotic incantation that belongs to any listener who has felt the same way.
8. “I don’t want to walk around, I don’t even want to breathe / I live in a southern town where all you can do is grit your teeth.” –- Elliott Smith, “Southern Belle” Lyrics
An exhilaratingly, almost unbearably tense takedown of a male (likely familial) oppressive authority figure reaches it’s claustrophobic apex in this reference to Smith’s Texan childhood home.
7. “Saw you and me on the coin-op TV / Frozen in fear every time we appear.” –- Elliott Smith, “Pictures of Me” Lyrics
A rare Smith song that could be interpreted as a distain for fame paints a Dylanesque nightmare populated by malevolent characters (the “jailer who sells personal hells / who’d like to see me down on my fucking knees”) and diabolical quotables (“everybody’s dying just to get the disease”) within a fuller-band arrangement that allows his luxurious harmonies to come to fuller fruition. The genuinely Beatles-esque melodic rise and fall on the word “TV” gives this lyric particular weight — the listener trapped in a particularly gorgeous depiction of the horrors of misrepresentation.
6. “I’m never going to know you now / but I’m going to love you anyhow.” — Elliott Smith, “Waltz #2” Lyrics
Smith masterfully describes destructive family dynamics narrated through, of all things, karaoke. This simple, heartbreaking refrain packs an emotional wallop while illuminating Smith’s feelings about the unbridgeable distance between himself and his mother.
5. “Cuz you know you know you know you know you know you know you know you know you know / I don’t / I dream.” – Elliott Smith, “A Question Mark” Lyrics
A deceptively simple and unpretentious kiss off to someone who “couldn’t keep the great unknown from making you mad.” As pissed off and righteous an artistic mission statement as one could ask for.
4. “You say you mean well / You don’t know what you mean / Fucking ought to stay the hell away from things you know nothing about.” – Elliott Smith, “Everybody Cares, Everybody Understands” Lyrics
However much listeners today empathize with those who organized the ill-fated intervention that inspired this song, Smith delivers this line with such threatening conviction that we can’t help but say, “right on!” This lyric articulates exactly how you have felt at various terrible points in your own life, with a precision that feels casually tossed off.
3. “What I used to be will pass away and then you’ll see / That all I want now is happiness for you and me.” – Elliott Smith, “Happiness” Lyrics
A love song about two people who had each “made [their] life a lie so [they] might never have to know anyone” takes us through an apparent car accident and various trauma (“her memory worked in reverse to keep her safe from herself”) to this sweet, heavily-repeated mantra at the conclusion. The combination of combustible emotions melting into genuine hope is breathtaking.
2. “The method acting that pays my bills / Keeps a fat man feeding in Beverly Hills/I’ve got a heavy metal mouth, it hurls obscenity / And I get my check from the trash treasury / Because I took my own insides out.” –- Elliott Smith, “King’s Crossing” Lyrics
This posthumously released song that made the live bootleg rounds in the early aughts is Smith at his most lyrically blatant and scary. The song reads like a case for addiction (“give me one reason not to do it” he dares, assuring us that “I’ve seen the movie, and I know what happens”). The song is chockablock with lines both hilarious and frightening, especially as Smith’s analysis of his own alienation seems so dead-on.
1. “You disappoint me / You people raking in on the world / The devil’s script sells you the heart of a black bird / Shine on me baby / Cause it’s raining in my heart.” –- Elliott Smith, “A Distorted Reality is Now a Necessity to be Free” Lyrics
While an earlier recording had Smith pledging to “make it through this afternoon”, From A Basement on the Hill’s version dumps “OD on Easter afternoon” on us, in case we haven’t gotten the message yet. Smith’s only post-9/11 studio album finds him in a very bitter but poetically political mood, his personal demons addressed within the hopeless, exploitative national politic. (“God knows why my country don’t give a fuck” he spits later, providing more context for the song’s title.) He manages to conjure up a shimmering peek through the clouds, into a possible redemption (or at least blessed temporary reprieve) through love. And it’s beautiful.