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The 10 best Elliott Smith songs, by the White Buffalo

Elliott Smith
(Image credit: Andy Willsher / Getty Images)

“I love Leonard Cohen and Townes Van Zandt, and these people who hit these emotional places,” says Jake Smith, a.k.a. The White Buffalo. “But Elliott Smith to me was the beginning. I was writing a lot of that time, but he was the one. He was definitely a major influence on me.

“I saw him at The Warfield in San Francisco, and I saw him at The Fillmore,” says The White Buffalo. “I actually got to meet him after the Fillmore, which was pretty crazy. You know how you say you should never meet your heroes? He was quite frail. I ended up sharing some Jameson’s with him from a bottle. 

"People were treating him like this delicate little flower they had to kind of dance around. And I wanted to grab him and say, ‘Dude you’re a fucking legend: a hero!’ Everyone was treating him like a child, which you imagine just added to his sadness and darkness.”

Below, The White Buffalo picks his Top 10 Elliott Smith songs.

Needle In The Hay

The disillusionment and the alcohol and the drugs: my favourite line is the one that goes, “Strung out and thin / Calling some friend trying to cash some check / He’s acting dumb / That’s what you’ve come to expect.” I think it’s a really great way to talk about a junkie: the imagery of that song is just amazing.

Clementine

I love some of his opening lines, when something grabs you right off the top of a song. This song in particular, with the lyric “They’re waking you up to close the bar / The street’s wet, you can tell by the sound of the cars”, is great. Firstly, the bartender’s waking you up, you’re obviously hammered, and you’re in a bad place. And then the second line is just a beautiful way to say that it’s wet and dark outside.

St Ides Heaven

I love how he has this urban thing where you feel the darkness and you feel the desperation, but there’s also a slight bit of hope as well. And he starts this one off “Everything is exactly right / When I walk around here drunk every night / With an open container from 7-11 / In St. Ides heaven”. There’s a bunch of great lines in that song.

Alameda

Either/Or is his masterpiece, at least in that stripped down setting. The guitar playing was insane. I love this song. In this song there’s the man or the boss or some kind of bully, somebody who’s controlling him or keeping him down. it opens up with “You walk down Alameda / Shuffling your deck of trick cards over everyone / Like some precious only son / Face down, bow to the champion.” It’s a great way to say that this guy is bigger and better than you, and you’ll never really be that.

Rose Parade

It’s supposed to be a portrait of him going to see the Rose Parade and how sad it is. I love the part where he’s talking about the trumpeter. “The trumpeter’s obviously been drinking / ‘Cause he’s fucking up even the simplest lines / You say it’s a sight that’s quite worth seeing / It’s just that everyone’s interest is stronger than mine / When they clean the street, I’ll be the only shit that’s left behind.” It’s a great lyric.

Angeles

The guitar playing this is mind blowing. I have a fairly primitive style, but the speed and accuracy of his finger picking makes it flow so great. My favourite lyric is “I can make you satisfied in everything you do / All your secret wishes could right now be coming true / And be forever with my poison arms around you”. It sounds like all his relationships are these kind of twisted, desperate situations where he’s just trying to hold onto some kind of love or hope… and often failing.

Waltz # 2

I don’t know if he signed a major label deal or something, but it seems like he got his hands on a lot more stuff as far as instrumentation and arrangements go. Waltz # 2 maybe my favourite ever lyric of his. I think it’s a song about his mother, and maybe a new stepfather, or a new man in her life, and he’s feeling kind of cast away, but he still loves her . There’s a line that goes, “She appears composed, so she is, I suppose / Who can really tell? / She shows no emotion at all / Stares into space like a dead china doll.” I love that lyric. The imagery of the dead china doll: She’s just empty.

I Didn’t Understand

I think it’s just vocals. He’s doing an almost symphonic thing, with vocals and the harmonies, and again it’s another sad song about a woman leaving him. “And so you’d soon be leaving me / Alone, like I’m supposed to be / Tonight, tomorrow, and everyday / There’s nothing here that you’ll miss / I can guarantee you this” It’s just like, Jesus! Come on! Give him a break! You know?

Somebody That I Used To Know

This was off Figure 8. Another heartbreak relationship song. There’s a line, “I had tender feelings that you made hard / But it’s your heart, not mine, that’s scarred” which I think is just fantastic.

Christian Brothers

Again, it’s the boss; the idea of people controlling him or forcing him to be this way. I went to a Christian brothers school and I know that Christian Brothers is also a shitty alcohol, a wino thing to drink. And there’s the line “No bad dream fucker’s gonna boss me around / Christian Brothers gonna take him down”. The thing about Elliott Smith, lyrically, is that quite often you don’t get it on the first listen, or even the tenth lesson. His lyrics were a gift that kept giving. 

You could continue to listen to him and continue to find these little emotional diamonds then maybe you didn’t catch on the 10th or 20th listen. For me, at first I was thinking, “is he talking about drinking?” Which is a common theme of his: the escapism, his way of dealing with pain. But it could also be about control and religious thought and sin.