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Music / Elliott Smith

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Mister Misery himself.

People you've been before
That you don't want around anymore
That push and shove and won't bend to your will
I'll keep them still.
— "Between the Bars"

Steven Paul Smith (August 6, 1969 – October 21, 2003), known professionally as Elliott Smith, was an American singer-songwriter and musician. His primary instrument was the acoustic guitar, although he could also play piano, clarinet, bass guitar, drums and harmonica. His music is characterized by his intricate guitar playing, his quiet, whispery delivery, and his use of vocal multi-tracking to create layers and harmonies.

Smith began his solo career in 1994 after playing in the rock band Heatmiser. After several releases on independent labels, he signed a contract with DreamWorks Records in 1997, for which he recorded his last two albums. He rose to mainstream prominence when his song "Miss Misery" – featured in the soundtrack of Good Will Hunting – received a nomination for the 1998 Academy Award for Best Original Song.

Smith suffered from alcoholism and drug addiction, and was diagnosed with depression and ADHD. Topics related to his struggles with substance use and mental illness affected his life and often appeared in his lyrics. In 2003, at age 34, he died in Los Angeles, California from two stab wounds to the chest. While his death was initially reported as a suicide, his autopsy did not determine whether the wounds were self-inflicted.

At the time of his death, Smith was working on his sixth album, From a Basement on the Hill, which would ultimately be completed and released posthumously through a joint effort from his family/ estate, a former producer, and an ex-girlfriend. Several more posthumous compilations of unreleased or reworked songs have been released in the years since.


Tropes associated with Elliott Smith include:

  • Abusive Parents: Smith claimed to have been sexually abused by his stepfather, and this was reflected in the lyrics of "Division Day", "Waltz #2" and, to a lesser extent, "Christian Brothers".
  • A Cappella: "I Didn't Understand".
  • Adam Westing: The short film Southlander features Smith obsessing over an infomercial for a robotic hand that will allegedly make him the world's greatest guitarist.
  • Alliterative Title: "Between the Bars", "Division Day", "Miss Misery", "Baby Britain", Some Song", "No Name #1-6", "Good to Go", etc.
  • Ballad of X: "Ballad of Big Nothing".
  • Broken Bird: The woman (commonly assumed to be Smith's mother) described in "Waltz #2", with her eyes of "a dead china doll".
  • Broken Record: In the song "Last Call" he repeats "ask for more" twice in rapid succession and then "I wanted her to tell me that she would never wake me" seven times.
  • Cluster F-Bomb: "Christian Brothers" has a lot of F-bombs for an acoustic ballad.
  • Cool Shades: The videos for "Coming Up Roses" and "Miss Misery."
  • Cover Version: The Beatles' "Because", Big Star's "Thirteen" and Cat Stevens' "Trouble", with the latter two specifically created for Thumbsucker.
  • Domestic Abuse: "Southern Belle", "Waltz #2".
  • Downer Ending: "Bye", an ominous, somber instrumental piano piece. It is the outro to Figure 8, his last album before his death.
  • Garage Band: Many of his early songs were recorded in his basement on a FourTrack.
  • In Name Only: "Ostrich & Chirping", a short interlude included on From a Basement on the Hill was neither written nor performed by Elliott Smith: The track consists of David McConnell, who recorded some of the album, looping sounds made by a toy bird. The piece was on the same reel as some of Elliott's songs, and producer Rob Schnapf decided to put it on the album.
  • Literary Allusion Title: Either/Or, titled after the Søren Kierkegaard book of the same name.
  • Lyrical Cold Open: "Amity", "I Can't Answer You Anymore", "I Didn't Understand" and probably others.
  • Lyrical Dissonance: "Division Day" is a cheerful-sounding, uptempo song about parental abuse.
  • Name and Name: "Punch and Judy".
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: "Everybody Cares, Everybody Understands" is about an intervention staged by Smith's friends which set off a chain of events that lead to him being committed to a mental institution in Arizona.
  • No Title: "No Name #1-6," of which four are on the same album. Other song titles are equally indescriptive, like the B-side "Some Song."
  • One-Woman Song: Subverted with the Two Woman Song "Cecilia/Amanda."
  • One-Word Title: "Clementine", "Satellite", "Alameda", "Angeles".
  • Precision F-Strike: "Christian Brothers", "I Didn't Understand", "A Distorted Reality is Now a Necessity to Be Free".
  • The Runaway: Smith ran away from home at the age of 14 to live with his father; the incident forms the basis of "Division Day".
  • Self-Backing Vocalist: Smith was a far better harmonist than a lead singer. See the acapella "I Didn't Understand" and his cover of The Beatles' "Because".