Indie-folk singer-songwriter Elliott Smith, born Steven Paul Smith in Omaha, Nebraska, on Aug. 6, 1969, is undoubtedly one of the most prolific and influential musicians of his generation, but his distaste for his celebrity status as well as his lifelong battle with substance abuse have often overshadowed his artistic talents and contributions throughout his 12-year-long career. Smith’s life was tragically cut short on Oct. 21, 2003, when he was found dead in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Echo Park with stab wounds to the chest, but the remarkable legacy he left behind persists. Many of his fans, myself included, have been listening to his records for years, and Smith has influenced the songwriting styles of many other contemporary musicians across various genres. As today marks the 18th anniversary of the passing of the incredibly gifted singer and instrumentalist, here is a selection of some essential Smith tracks and a perfect place to start if you’re looking to dive into his discography — or if you’re just in a ’90s indie-rock kind of mood this week.
“Between the Bars”
Album: “Either/Or” (1997)
I started listening to this song at a very young age, blissfully unaware of the grim meaning behind the lyricism, and it was only in the past year that I realized the darker themes in this song. “Between the Bars” details the unraveling of one’s life because of alcoholism, but there are many ways listeners have interpreted this song; are the “bars” the literal establishments where Smith would spend his days drinking, or are they an allusion to the bars of a jail cell, a metaphorical cry for help from addicts who feel imprisoned, looking for a way out at the bottom of the bottle? Smith sings, “Drink up, baby, look at the stars / I’ll kiss you again, between the bars,” as alcohol transforms into an intimate partner that Smith can rely on to feel a sense of comfort and safety. In Smith’s world, kisses don’t land on the lips of another but on the cold rim of a shot glass.
Album: “Either/Or” (1997)
The songwriting on this track, in my opinion, features some of the most moving lyrics of any musician’s catalog. This song, about a heartbroken man trying to win back his ex-girlfriend, finds its muse in producer and bassist Joanna Bolme, who was also in a long-term relationship with Smith. The Heatmiser frontman sings, “And I could be another fool / or an exception to the rule,” as he’s torn between being the guy who futilely clings to the past while still having faith that this relationship can surmount all obstacles. This song is unembellished and accessible, but that’s precisely why so many fans, myself included, enjoy the music. Throughout his illustrious career, Smith proved time and time again that music does not need to be complex in order to carry significance and to have a lasting effect across generations.
Album: “Roman Candle” (1994)
“Condor Ave,” the second track on Smith’s 1994 debut album “Roman Candle,” demonstrated just how talented the singer-songwriter was. The album, his shortest project ever, is only nine tracks long, and Smith recorded the entire album on a four-track tape recorder and released the songs untouched. “Roman Candle” is one of those “listen end-to-end,” “no skips or shuffle” kind of albums, and the listening experience is always so calming. “Condor Ave” tells the fictional story of a woman who, after arguing with her boyfriend, drove off but then fell asleep behind the wheel, killing herself as well as a homeless man in the accident. This track is one of Smith’s most narrative-driven songs, and the production itself is a beautifully simple track with gentle and understated vocals.
“No Name #3”
Album: “Roman Candle” (1994)
Another top-tier selection from “Roman Candle,” “No Name #3” is the third song out of five in Smith’s discography that follows this naming convention. This track is featured in one of the scenes from the 1997 classic film “Good Will Hunting,” a movie that will always hold a special place in my heart. Smith’s masterful contributions to the film’s soundtrack make it the incredible movie that it is. The guitar strumming in this track is beautiful and the lyrics are calming. One of my favorite lines from this track is, “Watched the dying day / blushing in the sky / everyone is uptight / so, come on, night.” This line is fun to visualize — the blush pink clouds filling the sky while the bright orange sun sets, something that Smith looks forward to because everyone seems to calm down when the moon comes out.
“Better Be Quiet Now”
Album: “Figure 8” (2000)
The standout track on Smith’s 2000 album “Figure 8,” an iconic album that I grew up with, is none other than “Better Be Quiet Now.” Smith sings, “If I didn’t know the difference / living alone would probably be okay / it wouldn’t be lonely.” This song feels extremely raw and vulnerable, a common theme in Smith’s discography and a major reason for the huge fanbase Smith garnered. “Better Be Quiet Now” evokes the conflicting emotions of wanting to feel the pain but also heal from the pain, while simultaneously struggling with the loss of a romantic partner. A difficult situation to maneuver, Smith seems to be saying that he wouldn’t be feeling such an overwhelming sense of loneliness if he hadn’t opened himself up, but does this mean that he wishes to have never dated his ex in the first place?
Album: “Good Will Hunting” soundtrack (1997), “XO,” (1998)
Another track from the soundtrack of “Good Will Hunting,” “Miss Misery” is truly a masterpiece. The song narrates the pain of unrequited love and the torment of letting someone continue to use you. Smith sings, “I come back when you want me to / Do you miss me miss misery / Like you say you do?” “Miss Misery” is also included on the deluxe version of Smith’s 1998 album “XO,” a record that may be all too familiar to the once-heartbroken out there. Many fans would even argue that “XO” is the late musician’s most unguarded and heart-wrenching album as he opens up about breakups, family trauma and other personal struggles he faced throughout his afflicted life and career.
You can listen to the complete playlist and other curated playlists on Artsweek’s Spotify account
A version of this article appeared on p. 11 of the Oct. 21, 2021 print edition of the Daily Nexus.