Listen to this track by equal-parts haunted and gifted former Heat Miser member and singer-songwriter Elliott Smith. It’s “Son of Sam”, the opening song and single as taken from 2000s Figure 8, his second major-label full-length album that took his career in a promising direction soon after his appearance at the 1998 Oscars.
On that broadcast, he’d played his “Miss Misery” which featured in the smash-hit movie Good Will Hunting, a film that featured a number of his songs. Never before had such a stark contrast been made for me, and for many others, on an Oscar show; the least Hollywood of performers on the most Hollywood of TV broadcasts. Somehow, the moody, weird kid in the high school cafeteria was offered a place, however briefly, at the cool kids’ table.
The only place to go was up, right? Well, yes and no.
Soon after his appearance on the Oscars, Elliott Smith debuted with his XO album on Dreamworks, a record that expanded his sound, bolstered as it was by a major label budget and top flight collaborators that included Jon Brion and Joey Waronker. With that release, it’s follow up in Figure 8, and the “Son of Sam” single, his spare acoustic roots as solo artist gave way to his keen ear and deft hand when it came to ambitious, sumptuous arrangements to enhanced the nuanced songwriting which had always been central to his talent.
Perhaps tellingly, “Son of Sam” references the Hindu god of destruction and transformation, Shiva. It’s one that also namechecks a serial killer while presenting a sunny, Beach-Boys-meets-the-Beatles-White-album arrangement to frame it. It’s this vital tension between creativity and destruction that seems to be at the heart of this particular song that stood as the album’s opener and lead single. In many ways, it’s a prime example of the forces that drove its creator, blessed with an ear for beauty and the skill to produce it with singular artistry, yet drawn from his own heart of darkness, too.
So, really “Son of Sam” evokes the tension between startling beauty and unfathomable darkness. It’s the sound of troubled emotions that can’t be expressed, all while a blue sky soars above them. Perhaps it’s a clue as to where Elliott Smith was at when he wrote it, but maybe it’s about us too as those who must also confront similar forces in our lives to varying degrees, with “shining paths” and “clouded minds” not being entirely uncommon.
Elliott Smith died violently in 2003 before he could follow up Figure 8 officially. His final studio-produced record From a Basement on a Hill and the subsequent New Moon compilation album would be released posthumously. Unanswered questions persist today surrounding the exact circumstances of what actually led up to his death.
He had always been a troubled soul, struggling with depression, alleged bouts of paranoia, and an associated propensity for self-medication using alcohol and hard drugs. It could be argued that fame and the spotlight was the last place for him where his health was concerned. Whether direct cause and effect between his increasing success and his downward spiral can be determined in any conclusive way or not, his period as a recording artist on a major label does seem to correspond with a journey further down a shadowy path to his own destruction. Perhaps it would have happened whichever professional position he was in. There’s just no way to know for sure.
But, one thing certainly is sure. As many of his contemporaries not to mention record-buying fans can attest, his talent was immense, undeniable, unique. We are lucky to have his music with us today. But, the cost of creating it turned out to be dear, with a balance between beauty and darkness which is almost magically preserved in the music being one that couldn’t be sustained in the life of the artist.
You can explore and discuss the work of this fascinating artist at the Sweet Adeline Elliott Smith fan site.
And if you’re ever in the Silver Lake neighbourhood of Los Angeles where he was based, be sure and visit the Figure 8 wall, dedicated to Elliott Smith’s memory and directly referencing the album off of which “Son of Sam” comes. After a period of deterioration, the Elliott Smith Figure Eight wall has been restored.