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
“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
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.