Let's Talk About Our Pasts

If Carl Wilson hadn’t mentioned Elliott Smith in his book about Celine Dion (reviewed here), I don’t think Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste would have made such an impact on me. I spend about one paragraph of the review hinting at the emotional ton of bricks Wilson’s book heaved upon me:

“Those who bemoan it [naked inspiration and catharsis in popular music] aren’t necessarily averse to emotion - the artifacts of indie culture are, by and large, quite sensitive - but they recoil at seeing it laid bare. Elitists prize ambiguity, art shrouded in dualities and murkiness. It’s Dion’s ‘Love can touch us one time/And last for a lifetime’ versus Elliott Smith’s ‘And I try to be but you know me/I come back when you want me to.’ If Smith’s weary resignation what appeals to us [sic], what does that say about our emotional health?”

I started listening to Elliott Smith in early 1998, after Gus Van Sant’s Good Will Hunting hit local theaters and immediately became my favorite movie ever (I kept a list. I was 14.) Beginning with the movie’s soundtrack - Smith classics interspersed with songs by the Dandy Warhols, Luscious Jackson, Al Green, among others - I quickly snatched up his three early albums, his major label debut, XO (which came out a few months later), and every demo and live cut I could find on Napster.

His music, I thought, didn’t just define me; it made me. I was a mellow, tasteless child. I listened to whatever was around, can’t recall a single hobby I had for more than a month or two. My main concern was fitting in and getting by, which in middle school and early high school is a really confusing process, as people idly branch off into “geeks,” “drinkers,” “smokers,” and whatever other categories. I wasn’t a cool kid or an outcast, but I wasn’t all that impressed with any of the clique options availed to me.

Smith, who Wilson aptly calls one of the “world’s fragile, unlovely outcasts,” helped me slip into my skin. His appeal was entire. He was quiet, usually calm, a little detached, pretty sad but not entirely pessimistic. He expressed my skepticism (“Everybody’s dying just to get the disease”) and chessily triumphant flights of fancy (“Got me singing along with some half-hearted victory song”). He basically made things make sense, in myriad barely describable ways, and it made me happier to know what I was wallowing about. And I did get happier. High school worked out.

Things got shakier when I made what, in retrospect, seems like one of the worst decisions you can make before going to college. That is, you decide you have a paralyzing crush on a classmate months before you part ways. Then what do you do? A lot of moping around, a lot of debating whether or not to confess your (sudden) feelings... a lot of looking for advice in Elliott Smith lyrics. You do a lot of other things too, most of which I just decided don’t fit into the purview of a blog post. Long story short: you repress a lot of ill-expressed emotions and eventually, to borrow a title of one of Smith’s songs, bottle up and explode.

Relating this back to Wilson’s book, the idea of repression’s pretty important. By basically allowing one musician to speak to a lot of emotions I’ve got so I don’t have to, there’s not a whole lot of growing up going on. Not a lot of reaching higher, like Celine might’ve wanted me to do. In the fall of 2003, while I’m studying abroad in London for a semester, Smith dies of an apparent suicide, a stab wound to the heart. Pretty devastating news, but I think that whatever ethic Smith’s music instilled in me made me handle it okay. Not maturely, though. I didn’t really face it, just repressed it and moved on.

I haven’t listened to Elliott Smith much since his final studio album, 2004’s posthumous From a Basement on the Hill (which foreshadows his suicide much more overtly than his other albums do), was released. Last year, a two-disc set of rarities called New Moon came out, which I’ve barely touched since it came out. Finishing up Wilson’s book, it seemed a strange behavior that I’d essentially avoided the album, full of songs from my favorite period of Smith’s work. I sampled some of it, wrapped up in thinking about all of this history, all of this me I attributed to someone else, but I couldn’t really listen to it. I didn’t want the words to sink in. To an extent, I’ve repressed and rejected Elliott Smith just as I might reject Celine Dion. He cuts too deep; I can’t handle it. He’s schmaltz to me now.


This entry - and my review of Wilson’s book - sort of skirts an issue that I hope is accepted as fact. Most of us, myself included, have a pretty wide variety of styles we listen to. I’ve got purely upbeat music, pretty miserable music, more that falls in between. Some of them have also factored in growing me up. I’d credit Spoon’s Girls Can Tell (2001) with hardening me a bit, making me feel more an indie rocker than folky sad-sack. But there are artists who serve as milemarkers in your life, and Smith ran more than a couple miles with me.

I still crave those artists and albums that’ll be with me when I’m vaguely miserable or needing some abstract catharsis. They come around regularly enough (Grizzly Bear leads the pack), but Wilson’s book made my selections feel disturbing. By and large, the bands on my “woe is me” playlist aren’t very intimate anymore. Grizzly Bear, for instance, gets me through formal command (they're powerful), oblique lyrics (they're mysterious, and you can project your problems onto them), and disarming shifts in atmosphere (they force a change on you). It’s gigantic, orchestral music, but it’s also sort of icy. It’s certainly colder and more repressed (or, at least, less explicitly expressed) than Elliott Smith’s solemn tunes.

Which got me thinking: did I just replace one depressing favorite artist with another, even more abstract one? What does that say about my emotional health?

I'm not going to answer this question, because as noted in my review, Wilson ends up sufficiently excusing the sentiment (and because we've already breached the TMI point). That does not, though, mean that I've entirely stopped stressing about it. Sometimes, the transformative power of art is a much thornier concept than it perhaps should be.

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