I first started listening to Elliott Smith at the suggestion of Raleigh, one of my best friends at the Academy and a notorious indie music buff. I started out by listening to some of his more accessible material – notably, songs like “Miss Misery,” which was featured in Good Will Hunting, and most of Figure 8, Smith’s brightest and least depressing album.
“Least Depressing Elliott Smith Album,” however, is a bit of an oxymoronic title. One of his most notable albums, Either/Or, derives its title from Kierkegaard’s book of the same name, which deals with existential despair, death, angst, and God, all typical of Kierkegaard’s work as a whole. Smith also struggled with depression, alcoholism, and drug dependence for a large portion of his tragically short life, and he may or may not have committed suicide (not joking; the evidence is inconclusive and the LAPD hasn’t done much to pursue the case since Elliott died 10 years ago).
If you can stomach the wrenching anguish and hopelessness that populate Smith’s lyrics, though, you’re in for a treat. He was a fantastically talented musician and songwriter; when he died, the world lost a great artist who was adept at engaging with the struggles of being alive and human.
Raleigh later gave me Grand Mal, Smith’s collected works, and I would put my iPod on shuffle while studying and explore around the collection. Several of the songs were part of the album From a Basement on a Hill, released posthumously in 2004; one of those songs was what is now one of my favorite Elliott Smith songs, “King’s Crossing.” It’s definitely one of his darkest pieces, and is regarded by many as his suicide note. Of course, there are others who contend that all of Basement is his suicide note as well as those who argue that he didn’t actually kill himself.
The first minute or so is composed of slowly swirling, ambient sounds from a synth and bass as well as a conversation of which we can only hear a few words: “she said, ‘brother – keep it down,’” followed by mumbles and moans, likely narrating the inside of Smith’s troubled mind. Then, the moans coalesce into a darkly ooh-ing chorus and are joined by a piano for a somber, 45-second waltz before Elliott begins to sing. This is what it feels like to listen to a suicide note: his mind, a darkened whirlpool, converges to a point. That point is the line, 3 stanzas in: “I can’t prepare for death more than I already have.”
The first verse deals with Smith’s disenchantment with the need to “keep character” as himself – he derides “the method acting that pays my bills” and the “check [he gets] from the trash treasury” because, he says, “I took my own insides out.” He already feels numbed, deadened even (hence the “more than I already have” clause) from being his own mouthpiece, from living a game that looks easy, “that’s why it sells.” He feels like he’s sold his being off to a junk bond trader, and feels like a skeleton of the introverted artist Steven Paul Smith from Omaha.
Smith went to rehab a few months before his death after a disaster of a performance at Northwestern University, and the several references to heroin dependency in “King’s Crossing” further illustrate his feeling of having arrived at a dead end. He points out, “all I wanna do now is inject my ex-wife,” referring to his addiction, and resolves that “I’m going on a date with a rich white lady/Ain’t life great?/Give me one good reason not to do it.” He barely listens to the whispered “Because we love you” in the background from his girlfriend, Jennifer Chiba, who was in the apartment when he died.
There’s a boatload more packed into this song than I can do justice in a LIBRARIES piece, but suffice it to say that “King’s Crossing,” as well as pretty much every Elliott Smith song, is dark, beautiful poetry. This song is uncharacteristically epic for Smith, an acoustic singer-songwriter at heart, but its lyrical and emotional depth are typical of his work. Listening to Elliott Smith got me through a lot of dark moments during my junior and senior years, and also helped me to develop my appreciation for good music. It’s a tragedy that he’s gone, but we’re all blessed that his talent remains as artwork. Elliott, I’m never gonna know you now, but I’m gonna love you anyhow.