Exactly 10 years after his death, we can look at Elliott Smith’s legacy and see what it’s become. For all his talent, his diligent writing and rewriting, his emotional nuance, the fact that he made sad songs and then killed himself is how he’s thought of in the mainstream consciousness. For better or worse, the romance of that tragedy made him more popular than ever. But in life, he had tried to distance himself from sad sack associations. In death, he has no control over his memory.
Exactly 10 years after his death, there’s still a lot we don’t know about Elliott Smith. His songs were so intimate and hammered on something that felt true, but he never plainly endorsed the image of him we created in our heads. He was wrapped up in an unknowable mist all the way to the end. Even his suicide was reversed to go on record as an unsettling “inconclusive.” We’ll never know how From a Basement on a Hill would sound like if he’d finished it, or if he’d like the shrine that pops up at the Figure 8 mural in Los Angeles this time of year.
Exactly 10 years after his death, he will resurface on music publications and blogs like this one. It’s practically an indie rock day of remembrance. We will remind you of the highlights: His best works like “The Biggest Lie,” his most popular songs like “Miss Misery,” or his blackest portraits like “Needle in the Hay.” As we should — they’re great tracks, and no one’s really writing songs like Elliott Smith anymore.
In an effort to expand those horizons, here’s my favorite Elliott Smith song outside of the classics. It’s from Heatmiser, his 5-person rock band that broke up sometime in the mid 90s. Afterwards, Elliott would skyrocket into notoriety, but in 1996’s Mic City Sons he was still a band’s leadsinger.
A version of this song would appear in the excellent posthumous compilation, New Moon . It was stripped down & raw, likely a demo while he figured out the song’s kinks. Most people are familiar with that rendition, but I think the full band song above is the best way to hear it. “Half Right” is as heavy as anything he’s written, but the addition of light drums and an underlying bass gives it life — and maybe some optimism — that feels great on a day like today.
Justin Pansacola is a writer living in Los Angeles. At the University of California, Riverside he received his degree in Creative Writing, not English, although he has resigned to the fact that no one cares about the difference. You can follow him on Twitter @wordcore. On some nights he looks up at the moon and wonders if you’re looking at the same moon, too.