Elliott Smith: Pretty (Ugly Before), soundtrack to a troubled soul

Tim Woods

There are different ways for musicians to be successful. The most obvious is through the charts: No1 singles or albums that go gold, then platinum. Then there’s performance: sold-out venues, global tours, playing live to thousands of adoring fans, night after night after night. Critical acclaim is another, and the one that many artists regard as the only thing they’re really interested in. But there’s another way to be successful: by meaning everything in the world to the people who listen to you, however many there are of them.


Towards the end of the 1990s, Elliott Smith acquired an almost mythical status among my music-loving friends. He was an enigma, a will-o’-the-wisp, a guitar-strumming Keyser Söze. A name that would be dropped into conversations at student parties, to test others’ muso credentials. Heard the new Elliott Smith track? Yeah, cool, man, cool. Remember, these were the days before YouTube and Spotify took the challenge out of discovering new music. Back then, the only way to hear him was to track down one of the few record shops that stocked his albums, or hope that a friend would make you a copy of their own treasured, often imported, CD.


He did have a taste of what could be considered commercial success, with several of his songs featuring on the soundtrack of Good Will Hunting. But despite an Oscar nomination for Miss Misery in 1998, he was never a mainstream artist. His first three albums had failed to chart, in the UK or his native USA, and the fourth, XO, released that same year, climbed only as high as 123 in the UK. This outsider status served only to enhance his reputation among those of us in the know, adding an extra layer of intrigue to this curious character from Nebraska.

The music was the real draw, though. Some of his songs are so hauntingly brilliant that they grab you from the first hearing, forcing you to stop what you’re doing and focus on what this man has to say. Waltz #2 (XO), the first track to get any real airplay in the UK, is an example. It’s a love song, but, typically of Smith, it’s no tale of a blooming romance, and there’s certainly no happy ending. In his world, the object of desire is in an unhappy relationship with someone else; he can’t have her, so instead he’ll love her from a distance, solely in his mind. There’s no brave attempt to win the girl, just a hopeless resignation that nothing good ever happens.


I’m never gonna know you now

But I’m gonna love you anyhow


And that lyric illustrates the challenge of listening to Smith’s work: it’s so desperately, painfully sad. A multitude of musicians have written about sadness and loss, but few have done so with the rawness that Smith did. His lyrics are the outpourings of a tortured, tormented soul, one who felt no need to hide anything from the listener. His songwriting was drawn from his long struggles with addiction, paranoia and depression, which led him to make at least one attempt on his own life. Music was an outlet, a way of letting out his unimaginable pain, and it can feel intrusive, almost voyeuristic, to be listening in.


Yet his songs are worth listening to, time and time again. It feels somehow wrong to pick a favourite from among such melancholy, but my personal selection is Pretty (Ugly Before) from 2004’s From A Basement On The Hill. It begins in a curious manner, a lone keyboard quickly giving way to a strummed guitar, as if one song started and then another took over. The rhythm seems a little out of synch, and the music almost discordant. When Smith’s fragile, multi-tracked vocal comes in, you wonder for a moment where it’s all heading. Even more unusually, there’s even a little bit of hope hidden there, tucked away in the third line:


Sunshine, been keeping me up for days

There is no night time, it’s only a passing phase

And I feel pretty, pretty enough for you


Yet when the drums and piano kick in at the end of that line, the various strands all start pulling together. The power of Smith’s words often overshadowed his musicianship, but this is a beautifully crafted song that becomes ever stronger and more complex as the layers are added with each passing verse. It is reminiscent of Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds, which pulls off the same trick of becoming more organised as it progresses – Smith was, apparently, a big Beatles fan – and by the closing verse, every piece of Pretty (Ugly Before) has slotted perfectly into place.

The song was released as a single and reached 85 in the UK charts in December 2004, but by then, Elliott Smith had left us. Soon afterward recording it in 2003, he died, aged 34, from multiple stab wounds to the chest. The official verdict remains open, but while some fans refuse to accept he took his own life, most of his close friends believe it was a suicide that, despite their numerous interventions, they were ultimately unable to prevent.


Since his passing, Elliott Smith’s songs have found a wider audience, with his music featuring on numerous film and TV soundtracks, a trend that started all the way back with that Oscar near-miss with Miss Misery. (He lost to Celine Dion’s My Heart Will Go On, which no doubt raised a wry smile.) He sold hundreds of thousands of records, even if that failed to be reflected in chart success. Given that critical recognition was there from the start, it’s fair to say he was successful during his own short lifetime.


But it is the impact he made on his devotees that is his truest artistic legacy. There are many who still treasure him, and continue to adore his memory and his songs, which are painful yet beautiful, challenging yet rewarding. His music really means something, to me and an unknown number of others. I’d like to think he appreciated that, however hard it must have been for him to write them.


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