Eight years ago, from the front of a concert hall, the illustrious pianist Christopher O’Riley introduced an Elliott Smith tune. Known for rendering material stretching from Ravel to Radiohead, O’Riley compared the late singer-songwriter to a modern George Gershwin.
My head swiveled in time to catch the blank stares of an audience mostly composed of concert-series subscribers age 65 and older. In the moment, even this admirer of Smith found O’Riley guilty of overreaching. Surely his hushed indie-rock songs, wonderful as they are, didn’t belong in the same company as Gershwin’s panoramic pop.
When I hear Smith’s music now, I believe O’Riley was on to something. Few artists, across generation or genre, own Smith’s gifts for laying his emotions bare, then comforting and clothing them in melody. Smith’s feelings were personal, yet never private. Rarely raising his voice above a whisper, he amplified the fear, doubt, anguish, and regret of his peers.
Had Smith outlasted a particularly tortured moment and lived beyond age 34, he would turn 50 on Aug. 6. A day which ought to be a milestone weighs on those who adored him, yet it also delivers another chance to celebrate his catalog and hear ourselves in his exquisite laments.
Smith’s songs were both sharp and soft, existing in a liminal space between austere folk music and the alternative rock of the 1990s. He came across like someone who might start any given night at a bookstore poetry reading, then migrate to a friend’s basement to be pummeled by a punk show. His lyrics, like a skeleton key, unlocked the psyches and souls of the lovesick, alienated, and addicted.
Smith transcribed the inner monologues of these autobiographical characters, transmitting them in musical Technicolor. It’s little wonder filmmakers borrowed his sense of motion and emotion for their moving pictures. Smith stood on Oscar’s stage in 1998, shy and angelic in a white suit, to deliver the nominated “Miss Misery” from Good Will Hunting. A few years later, Wes Anderson asked Smith’s “Needle in the Hay” to set a scene of a suicide attempt in The Royal Tenenbaums. It was as if Smith could access an emotional plane Hollywood’s most sensitive auteurs couldn’t reach alone.
Rarely raising his voice above a whisper, Smith amplified the fear, doubt, anguish, and regret of his peers.
Aging and enduring beautifully, his songs find resonance with the poets and psalmists. It’s easy to imagine the writer of Ecclesiastes singing along to “I got static in my head / The reflected sound of everything / Tried to go to where it led / But it didn’t lead to anything” (“Tomorrow Tomorrow”). Or David, in the deepest, darkest moments of his flight from Saul, etching this into the biblical record: “Bottle up and explode over and over / Keep the troublemaker below / Put it away and check out for the day” (“Bottle Up and Explode”). As Smith’s music evolved, growing in volume and complexity, you almost hear the psalmist counting in the drums and lyre.
In a world that still bottles up and explodes over and over, Smith’s music models what it sounds like to grieve life’s tragedies, great and small. The Bible tells us that a brother or sister’s emotional labor is our own; we place a shoulder beneath their burdens, and share in their joys. Rejoicing and mourning link hands; learning how to do one means learning to do the other. Smith keenly understood that a burden shared aloud is one whose weight can be evenly divided and carried.
In the gravity and delicacy of his songs, he illustrated mourning with those who mourn. More than 15 years after his death, you can put on a Smith song and trust that another human being identifies with the minor-key sounds inside you. Those waging a war with themselves feel heard when he sings, “People you’ve been before / That you don’t want around anymore / That push and shove and won’t bend to your will” (“Between the Bars”). Others, struggling to know who they are in relation to those around them, understand when Smith pleads, “If you get a feeling next time you see me / Do me a favor and let me know” (“Oh Well, OK”).
Smith’s music reminds us that it’s OK to mourn. A culture of self-reliance outside the church, compounded by the shiny, happy countenance often found within it, can make us feel defective or defeated when sadness casts a shadow. Smith’s songs exist like spiritual permission slips, nudging us forward to clear our throats and testify to sorrow. The church realizes its countercultural destiny, in part, when it acknowledges and gives full, free expression to the suffering of the saints. True lament precedes deep joy. We will never experience an abundance of life in Christ until we are honest about how and where we hurt. When we do, we find Jesus with us in our pain.
For the Christian, mourning is not a destination—dancing is; suffering eventually gives way to glory; death dissolves in the brilliant light of life. Smith perpetually struggled to take the next step, to sift ashes and find beauty. Knowing we often skip that necessary first step, Smith stepped in to teach us. As we mourn his memory, we look to another for help and healing. Like Smith, he was a man of sorrows and acquainted with great heartache; yet he lifts our heads and draws us up into his glorious life.