Often when I speak about musicians I admire, I call them with their first names. Ryan, Tom, Jeff, Nick, Bruce, Sufjan… Could go on like that for a while. It is a feeling of knowing someone though you have never met him. The imaginary relationship grows with every record, every phrase of lyrics. An illusion of course, but a harmless one. All starts with the first song – a kind of hello, how are you? Shake of hands and you know if this sound is the sound you want to know better. Then comes the very first record – an inspiring conversation lasting hours. You forget about the outside world. Words you hear are like secret keys to your mind. So you open up, because there is no other way. And you wonder how did he know I felt this exact way that exact moment? Butterflies in your stomach, sleepless nights, tunes you cannot get out of your head… First excitement, then it just feels like home.
With Elliott, I believe it was inevitable for us to meet. He came with a whisper, his voice tired but still very delicate. When the words are right, there is no need to scream. He stole my heart with Everything means nothing to me. I was nineteen then, still remembering times when Sylvia Plath was my greatest hero. A sensitive, dark and troubled soul was my first impression of Figure 8 author. A dedicated Beatles fan, under great influences of Dylan, Drake and Clash, Elliott also got inspired by novelists such as Dostoyevsky and Nabokov. His writing was more like poetry than song lyrics, dreams and images than stories. Minimalistic yet emotional, dark but still beautiful. Such simple lines as now that you’re big enough to run your own show / you’re just somebody that I used to know or I’m in love with the world through the eyes of a girl / who’s still around the morning after make it impossible to just walk away. Discovering his songs was like a grand déjà vu – I had already been there, thought that, felt that but the way he put it all together, surrounded by comforting, quiet sounds of his guitar… It meant something. It meant the whole world to me. It is crucial time, I believe, to leave your teens behind and enter the young adult life. These are the moments you find out your true taste when it comes to art, literature and music. It is also tough period, just to deal with first disappointments, tiny regrets, little mistakes. And everything seems so important and unique. The illusion of knowing all the answers, though actually you are just a kid running into walls, looking for an exit. The smallest amount of pain is unbearable. That particular time I met Elliott. He was my bell jar, he accompanied me into my twenties. He did not pretend to be wiser than he actually was nor try to force his point of view. When all of a sudden he disappeared, it was the end of a certain era for me. The circumstances of his death are still quite unclear, though it happened seven years ago. If you try to imagine the most daring way of killing yourself, it probably would be two stab wounds to the chest. The suicide was never officially confirmed, though Smith was known for his unbalanced personality, struggling with alcoholism, drug addictions and depression. With a fragile soul like that, anything is possible.
They say when a musician dies suddenly, chances are he will become an icon. Though From a Basement on the Hill [dated year after his death] got very good reviews, Elliott remained recognizable mostly to people who would have appreciated his music anyway. A true alternative. When he started out in 1994 with very acoustic Roman Candle, grunge was still on top of everything. He built with silence and whisper more than scream, even his rage was more like shade of sadness than real anger. The posthumous release differed from previous recordings. Noisy backgrounds, open spaces of sound. An illusion of mess but a very cohesive one. From a Basement on the Hill was produced by Rob Schnapf and Joanna Bolme – two people very close to Smith, both musically and personally. They chose final fifteen out of thirty tracks ready to go on the album and put the whole thing together. In my opinion, it would probably sound different if Elliott had a chance to finish the record himself, but still these are his songs, some of them the very last songs he ever wrote. In the end, it is one hell of a good record.
I made other friends during my trip, not yet finished, through my twenties. Some disappointed me, others surprised. Songs became signposts, music – map of winding roads leading my way. The greatest thing about having imaginary relationships with people who make sounds and lyrics is they stay with you even when already gone somewhere else. It is music that connects you in the first place. And music does not just fade away.
If you have never heard Elliott before, you can start with a brand new An Introduction to… Elliott Smith, released two days ago in Europe and yesterday in United States. I prefer to discover music by albums not single songs, it gives an opportunity to see progress and evolution of sound, but some of you may favour compilations like this one. It is a bit accidental and insufficient choice of tracks, but with Elliott it is all or nothing. Either you fall in love with the very first word he sings, or just leave him behind. I do believe you will rather sing along with the man himself: I’m never gonna know you now, but I’m gonna love you anyhow.