Everyone I talked to for my book "Torment Saint: The Life of Elliott Smith" said a version of the same thing: no song sounds like an Elliott Smith song. Musically, he was a bit of a savant, recording from the age of 13 on a four track reel-to-reel in Texas; then, after a move to Portland, fronting the high school band Stranger Than Fiction, a unit that produced six cassettes of ambitious, multi-sectioned, ornate pop-rock. Some of these songs--"Fast Food," "Key Biscayne," "Catholic"--even resurfaced decades later, as Elliott reconfigured them for the records XO and Figure 8.
But there's something else that sets Elliott yards apart from most of his peers. The words, the lyrics. It's an interesting question whether rock lyrics successfully rise to the level of poetry. Can they stand apart from the music in which they live? Could we read them with the same degree of pleasure? I'm not sure. Joni Mitchell, Elvis Costello, Bob Dylan--all spectacular lyricists, but not quite on a par with Larkin, Hardy, Yeats. All the same, there are songwriters who manage a sort of complete artistry. The music and words unroll together indissolubly; they achieve a majesty and grace.
Elliott Smith was a poet. He did what poets do. He read voraciously--Kafka, Dostoyevsky, Beckett, Stendahl. He also, though he doubted himself at first, and relied on friend Garrick Duckler for lyrical inspiration, wrote lines that sparkled, jumped, and burned, full of arresting imagery and almost entirely devoid of cliche (the real writer's nightmare). You do not find clunkers in Elliott Smith lines. They can be simple, they can be clotted, they can be, and usually are, elliptical, but they never disappoint.
Choosing examples is tough. One could almost proceed at random--each song is that good. But herewith are a handful of tunes that floored me, instantly, for their originality, specificity, and simple brilliance: