Should we care about what dead people thought? Should we release music that was not supposed to be released? Songs that deceased musicians didn’t want to release … ever? These questions didn’t really stop anyone who is behind the resurfacing of these Elliott Smith-related releases. Most of the songs have been on YouTube for a few years anyway, but a new Pitchfork article is certainly bringing great attention to them. It reveals that 6 albums recorded by Elliott as a teenager with his friends (under different band names like Stranger Than Fiction, A Murder of Crows, and Harum Scarum) are now available on the internet.
These “new releases” are the work of a Dallas-based 20-year-old diehard fan named Cameron McCrary, who become obsessed with the music, especially the unreleased music. Never mind that Jayson Greene, the author of the article, calls the tracks “moments that an adult Smith imagined seeing resurface in his cold-sweat nightmares” and quotes Elliott saying in interviews “I really promised myself a long time ago I would keep [them] from ever seeing the light of day,” the songs are now out there for everyone. I honestly don’t know how long we have to wait before exhuming the dead and discarding their most intimate wishes, and I don’t think the dead are watching from above and getting angry at us for such an offensive move, but I am not sure that everything, absolutely everything, has to be released.
However, this story has some intriguing and even interesting aspects: it confirms that some of these old recordings were early versions of later songs. In particular, a song called “Three” (with lyrics by bandmate Garrick Duckler) is an early version of “King’s Crossing,” off Elliott’s “From a Basement on the Hill,” an album released a year after his death. Even though the lyrics have been partially reworked, this discovery doesn’t bring any argument for people who have claimed that the song was Elliott’s “suicide note. Duckler’s version had: “You take too many sleeping pills/You know what happens,” Elliott’s version has: “I’ve seen the movie/And I know what happens” and I will let you the judge for deciding which one is darker! Jayson Greene even reveals that the line, “Gimme one good reason why you do it” (it became “Give me one good reason not to do it” in Elliott’s version) referred to paying taxes and filling out a W-4 form in the original version. How hilarious that most people have attributed this sentence to a far darker thought. Whatever Elliott’s intentions were with this line, he had to know the original meaning and he probably never said anything because he loved this sort of ambiguity.
The same can be said of “Condor Ave,” a song that has always sounded very personal and autobiographical. However, it was already recorded by Murder of Crows, and if the melody and arrangements are very similar, the song is just faster, and tougher sounding. The lyrics were once again written by Duckler, not Smith – I don’t know if someone has made a serious comparison but the original 1988 version of the song seems very close to Elliott’s; Duckler said he wrote the song from the perspective of a young girl, and it’s still very much there.
After Elliott’s tragic death, many people have revisited the meaning of his songs, and have often re-interpreted them in a more autobiographical manner. This was unnecessary, and wrong especially when we know more about the origins of these songs. If this article accomplishes anything it strongly dedramatizes Elliott Smith’s songs and put some distance between the singer-songwriter and some of his work. The fact that Elliott managed to make these songs so personal is a testimony of his real talent not some evidence of his depressive, sad life.
There are crucial things I attentively watch for when reading about Elliott Smith and one of them is the overzealous autobiographical interpretation of his songs in a disastrous attempt to portray him as a mythic sad sack. This happens all the time, despite the fact that Elliott has repeatedly affirmed in interviews that his songs were not diary entries: “They have to come from somewhere, so there’s something to that. They’re songs, they’re not like a speech or a journal. They’re more like dreams: They’re true in one way, but they’re not factually true. Parts of them might be, but it’s not really important“
If this Pitchfork article achieves one thing, it confirms this exact idea, and it matters greatly. It makes Elliott look like a regular but talented teenager, and it brings back the idea that every artist is more or less an act, as Tom Waits would say. Glynnis Fawkes, who used to draw art and snap photos for the diverse bands’ album covers, remembers Elliott as endearingly normal. Normal? But it’s true that no endearing myth is built on normal.
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