I always feel slightly weird, and guilty, listening to an artist’s unreleased work. On one hand, if I like an artist, I get an overwhelming need to immerse myself in all of their music. On the other hand, as an artist myself, I completely understand why someone would not want to release something, especially if they felt that it was too personal or wasn’t ready to share with the public. This conflict is especially prominent with artists like Elliott Smith.
For those who do not know, Elliott Smith was a genius singer, songwriter, and musician. At the age of 34, he was fatally stabbed (there is still controversy whether the stabbing was self-inflicted or homicide). During his short time on earth, he was able to create five breathtaking solo albums (Roman Candle, Elliott Smith, Either/Or, XO, and Figure 8). At the time of his death, he was working on his fifth—and in my opinion, best—solo album, From a Basement on the Hill. Originally envisioned by Elliott as a double album, over 50 songs were allegedly recorded for the album. When the album was finally released a year after his death, only 15 songs were included. Since this is the age of the internet, many of these songs, as well as unreleased songs from earlier albums, have found their way to the internet.
Now, if you feel uncomfortable listening to this work, I understand. However, for those who are interested, I strongly encourage you to give these songs a chance. Here’s why:
1.) Great Music. Elliott Smith never made bad music, and this can be seen even in the work that was left off of his albums. Take, for example, Abused. Though reportedly left off his last album because of how personal the lyrics are, the writing is impeccable, and, in under three minutes, manages to convey many of the complications of abuse–the dark feelings that survivors are left with, the inner-conflict of wanting to report what happened and also move on, the confusion that comes with repressed memories—while set to a hauntingly happy melody.
2.) The Value of Hard Work: Being prolific doesn’t always mean that all of the work is good. However, it’s hard not to be amazed by Elliott’s output. His 2007 posthumous album New Moon, for example, contains 24 songs that he recorded between 1994 and 1997. 24! That’s enough to fill almost 2.5 albums. Keep in mind that, during those years, he also recorded and released two studio albums and was frequently on the road for promotional interviews and tours. Of those 24 songs, only two of them were later reworked and released, which brings me to the third point.
3.) Kill Your Darlings: As all writers know, one of the most frustrating things that can happen during the writing process is when you spend what seems an eternity on a passage or blog post or song only to discover that it isn’t working and it needs to be scrapped. Yes, some of it may be very good, even great. Yes, it may contain the best writing you’ve done in months. Yet, if it doesn’t work, it must be discarded. Based on his unreleased songs, it seems clear that Elliott absolutely understood what William Faulkner meant when he instructed writers to kill their darlings.
4.) Very Good Isn’t Good Enough: One of the greatest things about listening to Elliott’s work is the chance to get a glimpse into his writing process. Take the song “Miss Misery.” In an earlier version, Elliott sings the following:
Next door, the TV’s flashing
Blue frames on the wall
It’s a comedy from the seventies
With a lead no one recalls
He vanished into oblivion
It’s easy to do
And I cried a sea when you talked to me
The day you said we were through
But it’s all right, some enchanted night
I’ll be with you
In the final version, Elliott changes the lyrics to:
Next door the TVs flashing blue
Frames on the wall
It’s a comedy of errors, you see;
It’s about taking a fall
To vanish into oblivion
It’s easy to do and I try to be but you know me
I come back when you want me to
Do you miss me—Miss Misery—
Like you say you do?
Both versions contain sets of great lyrics. I think any songwriter would be pretty satisfied had they written anything close to the original version. However, Elliott clearly demanded more from himself, which is part of what made him a genius. Even if these changes don’t seem significant upon first glance (“It’s a comedy from the seventies/With a lead no one recalls” vs. “It’s a comedy of errors, you see; it’s about taking a fall”), the changes show Elliott’s commitment to making every single word count.
5.) Writing is a journey, not a trip: I have to admit, I always really hate it when I hear about musicians who wrote amazing songs in fifteen minutes or less. I’ve tried adapting a similar process, and to say my results were failures would not even begin to describe how horrible the work was. Based on journals and recordings, we can conclude that Elliott did not follow this process. Many of his songs were tinkered with for years before they were considered finished. This brings us to one of the most important lessons Elliott can teach writers: writing is a process. It takes a lot of hard work and determination and frustration and courage. But, as Elliott proved, the effort is absolutely worth it.
Are you a fan of Elliott Smith’s music? Are there other writing tips we can learn from him? Let me know in the comments section down below!
*Photo Courtesy of consequenceofsound.com.