Elliot Smith's maximum sincerity

10 years after his death, Smith's music is still a solution for our irony-obsessed times

elliott_smith Andy Willsher

I was too late coming to Elliott Smith’s music. Too late to hear any releases as they came out, anyway (his final record came out in 2000). Ten years ago, Smith died from two stab wounds to the chest, which may or may not have been self-inflicted. At the age of 15, this precious information was delivered to me in hushed tones by my boyfriend at the time, along with notes on the spelling mistake in his suicide note and a copy of Figure 8.

Angst has fuelled countless songwriters over the years, but I doubt any has channelled it with quite the same rawness that is glaringly obvious in Smith’s music – maybe that’s one reason his music seems so inextricably linked to being a teenager. The coupling of self-deprecating melodrama and the sullen sense of wrongdoing that pervades his songs is uniquely suited to anyone's fucked up adolescence. His lyrics are brutally, petulantly honest: a perfect soundtrack to a confused mess of feelings and misplaced anger; a teen glowering under eyelashes at the hostile world around them.

Smith’s music is an ice-cold bucket of apathy-killer

Instead of the Kurt Cobain (another suicide looming large on our cultural horizon, almost ten years prior to Smith’s death) model of listen-to-me-or-else angst, Smith’s words rage (and let’s be clear – they are raging) in an entirely interior way, slipping out in bursts and moments: a word spat out in disgust, a sulking lull in intonation, a heavyhanded strum or intake of breath that forces us to remember these words are forged with sweat and blood. Wallowing of absolutely any kind is best carried out with someone just as vulnerable on your shoulder, talking you through it in a way that only music can.

We could talk about aesthetic movements; the New Sincerity, with Cat Power and David Foster Wallace and writing to create meaning and authenticity in the face of the postmodern cynicism. And, certainly, without Smith, Conor Oberst’s Bright Eyes, Sufjan Stevens and Devendra Banhart would be missing a lyrical mentor. More importantly, a generation of young people have channelled their fear and confusion at the world in an entirely different way. But even the collection of multi-disciplinary artists loosely affiliated with the New Sincerity, spread out over a large time and spatial frame, would struggle to even claim itself as a movement.

As the debate about cynicism and irony rages on, as exemplified in the last year’s furore surrounding Christy Wampole’s NYT piece "How To Live Without Irony" – we need to remember how to speak about things we love truly.

Of course, irony has meaning too – as the backlash to Wampole’s millennial-bashing pointed out – and modes of expression can be just that. Last month Andy Holden’s commission Maximum Irony! Maximum Sincerity opened at London’s Zabludowicz collection – his manifesto (from 2003, the year of Smith’s death) asks: “Let us not be ironic about our sincerity, let us be sincere about our irony” and then quotes Picasso (so sincere!).

A case in location-based point – Smith’s home for much of his life, Portland, Oregon – has since become an overblown cliché of itself with self-flagellating comedies like Portlandia. Though Smith moved out of the city before he died, it’s there that he put in the miles on making his lo-fi vision of his music a reality, along with other like-minded artists. But it’s now become the butt of the joke – one that began with a kernel of sincerity. Oversaturation of ideas isn’t created by individuals with grand cynical masterplans, but by a multitude of people who have something to say.

Smith said something similar (and extremely sincere) about his move to a larger record label: “Major labels... are actually composed of individuals who are real people, and there's a part of them that needs to feel that part of their job is to put out good music.”

Smith’s music is an ice-cold bucket of apathy-killer, the ultimate risk in vulnerability: wearing its heart on its sleeve, with no protective irony coating.

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