Artists have issues. Lest it’s forgotten,they are human. Unchecked issues can be overwhelming, and, tragically, some who create art in life take a permanent detour to quiet their minds. Over the years, suicide has erased from the world many painters (Vincent van Gogh), poets (Sylvia Plath) and, recently, musician Elliott Smith.
Most of the world met Smith when his songs were featured in Good Will Hunting, including “Miss Misery,” which was nominated for an Oscar in 1998. At the time of his death on Oct. 21, an apparent suicide with a knife, he was working on his sixth solo album, From a Basement on the Hill.
Smith’s songwriting, despite its cheery arrangements in the tradition of Simon and Garfunkel and the Beatles, is a depressing affair. Emotion creeps into everyone’s daily work to some extent, but Leo Tolstoy wrote, “Art is a human activity consisting in this, that one man consciously, by means of certain external signs, hands on to others feelings he has lived through, and that other people are infected by these feelings and also experience them.”
In his five solo albums, Smith almost too effectively infected listeners with his life: his divorced parents, his problems never quite fitting in, his failed relationships, his drug and alcohol addictions and the fragmented nature of all these themes.
Fittingly, Smith’s voice and arrangements hit their sweetest tones during harrowing stories of intoxication and alienation. On “St. Ides Heaven” from his self-titled 1995 release, Smith first hooks the listener with the lines: “Everything is exactly right / when I walk around here drunk every night / with an open container from 7-11 / in St. Ides Heaven.”
Backed with minimal percussion and acoustic guitar, he later delivers the pillow-soft, beguiling chorus: “High on amphetamines / the moon is a light bulb breaking / it’ll go around with anyone / but it won’t come down for anyone / and I won’t come down for anyone.”
“I Didn’t Understand,” the a cappella closer of 1998’s XO, is sumptuous to the ear yet reeks of bitterness. Surrounded by his own voice in four-part harmony, Smith sings: “I waited for a bus to separate the both of us / and take me off far away from you / ’cos my feelings never change a bit / I always feel like shit / I don’t know why / I guess I just do.”
Sharing feelings through art is liberating for some. But in Smith’s case, art was not an effective escape from inner demons. In a 1999 interview with online magazine NME, he said: “Some people do drugs, some people exercise. People find all kinds of ways to get out of the humdrum repetitive nature of having to be the same person all the time. But it might not be very interesting to write a song that describes the experience of jogging!”
Smith never changed the tone or subject matter of his lyrics, and as sick as it sounds, society often roots for the tortured artist to stay that way. Had he cheered up, his family and friends would have been relieved. But gone would be his verses that, even with no hope in sight, valiantly held up a candle to the crestfallen.
Instead, he’s gone — to no one’s relief.
— Reed Fischer