“When I first received this Nobel Prize for literature,” Bob Dylan opened his mesmerising acceptance speech last summer, “I got to wondering exactly how my songs related to literature.” After weeks of silence against the deafening controversy surrounding his award, Dylan pondered where he fit into the grand scheme of all this landmark literature. The result was an address unlike any other in the Swedish Academy’s history. Dylan embarked on a dizzying voyage into his musical influences and personal philosophy. Reflections on Aristotle and Plato were interspersed with surprising appreciations of All Quiet on the Western Front and Moby Dick. “I took all that with me when I started composing lyrics,” he said, before finishing with a rebuttal to his critics: “If a song moves you, that’s all that’s important.”
Now recognised as a poet in his own right, Dylan’s selection means we are faced with a fascinating problem. Do we need to fundamentally reconsider the literary canon? Is songwriting really a form of poetry?
Fifteen years ago, Elliott Smith was found lying in his Los Angeles apartment with two fatal stab wounds to the chest. Though the coroner’s report was inconclusive, one only has to listen back through his albums to surmise the most likely cause of death – suicide. He was only 34, but the Texas-born singer songwriter’s astonishing catalogue can help us to solve these mysteries and more.
Smith led a life tormented by depression, alcoholism and drug addiction. Unlike the Nobel Prize winner, his personal demons robbed him of the longevity that partly makes Dylan so revered. But, so long after his death, Smith’s legacy is constantly being updated with a continuous stream of remastered albums, unreleased demos and live recordings that can be found online. Listening today, it still feels as if there is so much left to be discovered. The more you do, one thing becomes gradually clear: if literature concerns the beauty of language, the art of storytelling and the revelation of character, then Smith deserves a place alongside the 20th century’s greatest writers.
Though Smith lacks Dylan’s profile, he still has a host of celebrity admirers and a cult-like fan base. Emerging as a solo artist from the band Heatmiser out of the thriving indie scene in Portland, the subject matter of Smith’s writing is decidedly punk. The themes he explores of drug abuse, despair and the quest for happiness are all delivered – pitch perfect – with a disarmingly soft voice that serves as a personal invitation to its listeners that transcends mere genre.
He was an outstanding musician. Whether through stripped back acoustic guitar or grand orchestral arrangements, his complex, varied melodies always seem perfectly matched to the story he was trying to tell. Smith’s music is often labelled as ‘depressing’, and with songs titles like ‘Everything Means Nothing to Me’ that is bound to happen. But his talent is confused with our debilitating obsession with the ‘tortured genius’.
In Smith’s words, ‘there has to be a certain amount of darkness in my songs for the happiness to matter’. Once you look past all that sadness you are left with something so intensely beautiful. Just look up the stunned silence during his white-suited rendition of ‘Miss Misery’ at the Oscars in 1998 (above), where he was nominated for his contribution to the soundtrack of Gus Van Sant’s Good Will Hunting.
Smith, like Dylan, was as much a lyricist as he was a composer. His writing tackled those ideas of such universal significance to all the literary ‘heavyweights’ – alienation, despair and the quest for happiness. Up there with the likes of Sylvia Plath, Emily Dickinson and William Burroughs, for me, Smith is one of the greatest modern chroniclers of depression and addiction. Like them, his work is steeped in metaphor and ambiguity. Take the best of his third studio album Either/Or: ‘Drink up, baby, look at the stars / I’ll kiss you again, between the bars’. Are these the bars of a prison cell? Or is this just the restless alcoholics need for a fix? Then there’s the complexity of ‘King’s Crossing’, which comes towards the end of the posthumously released From a Basement on the Hill: ‘It’s Christmas time / And the needles on the tree/ A skinny Santa is bringing something to me / His voice is overwhelming, but his speech is slurred / And I only understand every other word’. Is this another story about the perils of being a junkie? Or are we involved in something more sinister? Rumours of a childhood mired by sexual abuse have still not been fully addressed.
And then, from what follows in the same track, there is Smith’s capacity to take you on a spellbinding journey through his skilful use of language. A journey that can be brilliantly euphoric as well as as dark and horrifying. ‘Open your parachute and grab your gun / Falling down like an omen, a setting sun / Read the part and we turn out fine / It’s a hell of a role if you can keep it alive’. Of course, lyrics are meant to be sung. But his writing is as powerful as ever when read on the page.
Elliott Smith was relentlessly brooding, though his introspections were always wrapped up in dense layers of imagery, character and abstract storytelling. It is a tragedy that he never got to step out into the world, away from inner turmoil, in the same way that Dylan did. However, while his songs may be personal, they never fall into the trap of adolescence and indulgence. They are confessional without ever being autobiographical. Pouring through his records you think: he knows me. He knows exactly who I am. This works best when Smith is at his most angry. We can all identify with the sense that the world is against us, and he possessed the astonishing ability to directly address our inner rebel: ‘No bad dream fucker’s gonna boss me around / Christian brothers gonna take him down’.
His influences ranged from feminist writers like Catharine McKinnon to Samuel Beckett and the Great Russian novelists. Either/Or takes its name from the book of the same title by Soren Kierkegaard, one of the founding texts of existentialism. Dylan himself also gets a mention in the few interviews Smith did in his lifetime. “When I started to like lyrics,” Smith said, “I really liked [Bob Dylan’s] Blood on the Tracks and Highway 61.” Literary influences on a literary output.
If Dylan is a poet, Smith was a novelist. Each album has such a distinct feel and tone, with a range and a subtlety which in truth would be the envy of most writers working today. There is a reason his adoring fans have such a personal relationship with his music. As a fictional memoir of a crippling addiction, Elliott Smith trumps Edward St Aubyn. As a portrait of personal despair, XO rivals The Bell Jar.
You can question whether the distinction of an award really matters, but with such strict lines between literature and music, we are in danger of overlooking lyricists’ work or being it as somehow ‘uncultured’. Now that Dylan has been recognised for what he is – a giant of modern literature – so too should others. Innumerable writers have spoken about the crisis of the modern novel. But, when you listen to Elliott Smith, you have to wonder, are we not just listening to them instead?
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