Sunday, November 08, 2015

Elliott Smith and the Big Nothing (2004)

As much for the opportunity to acquaint myself anew with the music of Elliott Smith, I really enjoyed reading Benjamin Nugent's early biography. I don't know any other Smith bios besides the recent documentary, so I know only vaguely whether or how much some of the principals in the story may have opened up by now. Insights or comment from his family are notably absent here, and many of his girlfriends and other key figures are also missing in action. But Nugent steps away from the problem by focusing on Smith's work and development as an artist. Nugent does not shy away from what he knows of the problems—drugs, obviously, and Smith's speculations that he may have been abused as a child, which together with other factors produced a personality that tended toward isolation. As usual in these things, the greatest obvious weakness is also the greatest obvious strength—all artists require a degree of isolation. Nugent again is very good at keeping the focus on the work. He talked to many of the people who worked with Smith in the studio, and there are wonderful revelations about Smith's sources and influences. Very high at the top were the Beatles, a fact that surprised me and then didn't. Even more interesting to find out how constructed his sound was—again, it seems obvious in hindsight, but something about Smith's music projects so directly that I'd never thought about how mediated it is. The very distinctness of his sound—based in many ways on a strategy of double-tracking both the vocals and guitar—should have been my first clue. There's more lyrical analysis here, which is all good though it reminded me, by how unfamiliar these snatches could be, how little Smith's lyrics have ever mattered to me. His music is almost purely a matter of mood, a hazy counterpane for the chills, psychic and otherwise. Instead of the Beatles (and then Kinks), I realized I had long assumed his '60s guide star was Simon and Garfunkel—more fool me, perhaps. But Simon and Garfunkel were equally masters of similar moods (and better than I had remembered or expected when I came to revisit them a few years ago)—equally literate, reasonably privileged, and capable of writing about life's underbellies in detailed ways. Smith's story remains a sad one, but his music is no less stirring and brave. Nugent's book is a nice version of his life.

In case it's not at the library.


  1. I think it's commendable how much he likes Smith's records w/out coming off fawning. I still think his catalog is patchy, but I used to think Either/Or was all you needed. Thank Mr. Nugent for leading me to some other stone melodic gems in his early stuff.

  2. The other, newer, better-researched full-length Elliott Smith bio, "Torment Saint"; Autumn de Wilde's oral history/photo book; and Matt LeMay's short 33 1/3 series book on "XO" are all better Smith books than this one.