Elliott Smith - Son of Sam
-Son of Sam-
I may talk in my sleep tonight
Cos I don't know what I am
I'm a little like you
More like Son of Sam
Here we go with another tormented songwriting genius. Son of Sam has this nearly ragtime piano groove panned off to the right and it brings a charm to this track that seems ill fit for a song that would appear to be about identifying more with a serial killer than the rest of society. In an interview with Adam Walton from April of 2000, Smith said that the song wasn't about the serial killer at all, but about destruction and creativity. He likened it to telling someone about a dream you had. I get it; that reoccurring dream about murdering six people in the summer of '76. Creative. Destructive.... Yikes!
Without sarcasm though, the lyrics definitely back up what Elliott Smith identifies in the interview.
Don't speak too soon
I told the boss off, made my move
Got nowhere to go
Son of Sam
Son of the shining path, the clouded mind
The couple killer each and every time
I think a lot of creative types can identify with that.
Diving back into the music, the hallmark of an Elliott Smith track is the signature Elliott Smith vocal. It's airy and soft spoken, but double tracked (two takes of the vocal playing at the same time) to bring a strength and thickness to it in the recordings. If you aren't familiar with the way double tracked vocals sound, the giveaway is on the sibilances (S's, X's, etc.) when you can hear them hit just a split second apart. Sometimes the words start or end just a little off as well. Anyway, it takes a really great vocalist to do it well because you have to give the exact same performance twice for it to work. If the delivery is even a little bit off it can get messy (although sometimes thats kind of charming too). Elliott Smith does it perfectly, and while John Lennon may have been the godfather of vocal doubling, I would venture to say that Smith's use of has served as inspiration for another generation of songwriters.
I love the guitar work on this song. His half palm-muted arpeggios on the front are the perfect counter to the piano. The instrumental melody at 1:40 played by both piano and guitar is just an awesome part to write into this piece, and his delivery while relatively straight forward, sells the melody one more time ensuring that you'll have Son of Sam stuck in your head all day.
One of my favorite parts of Son of Sam is that it ends on a bridge. Song structure is a plaything for Elliott Smith. He creates the structure that delivers the story the way he wants it to, and there is something really wonderful about that. Maybe I'm not giving modern radio stars a fair shake, but I have found it rare for a pop writer on the radio to stray from verse, chorus, verse, chorus, breakdown (because thats what a bridge has devolved to in 2016), chorus, chorus.
Elliott Smith had a rough childhood and battled with drugs, alcohol, and severe depression throughout his life. In an interview with Phoenix New Times, friend and fellow musician Pete Krebs said "Lots of people have stories of their own experiences of staying up with Elliott til 5 in the morning, holding his hand, telling him not to kill himself." Listening to his lyrics that pain is completely unveiled. One example can be found a few tracks further in from Son of Sam on Figure 8 where the song Everything Reminds Me Of Her is followed by Everything Means Nothing To Me. It feels weird to love these songs the way I do while acknowledging that they're the pained expressions of an artist suffering from addiction and depression. So much great art is though :-/
While the coroner report is inconclusive, it is widely accepted that Elliott Smith ended his own life on October 21, 2003. He left a note on a post-it that read "I'm so sorry - love, Elliott. God forgive me."
Elliott Smith released five studio records and you should listen to them all. They're amazing. There are even three posthumously released albums put together from Smith's unfinished works. From a Basement on a Hill is the record he was working on and left unfinished in death. Smith's producer Rob Schnaf and ex-girlfriend Joanna Bolme worked together to sort through the material and complete the album. Though he never saw the finished record, I would argue it's one of his best.
In doing the legwork for this post I found Elliott Smith's pre-solo work band, Heatmiser. It was like discovering 4 new Elliott Smith records that I had never heard before! The final one, Mic City Sons is the result of a record deal with Virgin Records. The band broke up before its release as Smith's solo career was starting to take off, and Virgin decided to release the album through its independent label Caroline Records.
If you dig this tune check out:
(all links go to youtube videos that stand as the best representation of the artist so you don't have to go hunting for music that doesn't suck)