A Mixed Bag of Interpretations
Almost 15 years have passed since we lost Elliott Smith. The singer-songwriter lived much of his career as a walking anachronism: a sensitive writer in 1990s Seattle, then a flannel-crazed grunge Mecca. Since his untimely death, however, Smith’s influence has undeniably echoed into subsequent generations across genres, shaping the work of Dashboard Confessional, Sufjan Stevens, and even Frank Ocean. Throughout the past decade, several tributes have emerged, including the most recent Say Yes! A Tribute to Elliott Smith. The latest collection brings a set of tributes from well-knowns including J Mascis, Sun Kil Moon, Yuck, and Waxahatchee, along with a handful of up-and-comers. The result is an uneven but earnest collection that at its best moments will allow the next generation of listeners to understand why Smith was so beloved and still missed today.
Ultimately, Say Yes! does not take many risks on Smith’s repertoire; the track list haphazardly wavers between better-known selections from Either/Or and XO with a sprinkling of tracks from all walks of the Elliott Smith discography. With a small handful of exceptions, most of these tracks honor Elliott’s melodies, bringing moderate stylistic changes. This is not necessarily a criticism; the formula gives us some of the album’s best moments. Julien Baker’s subdued “Battle of Big Nothing” provides us with new meaning to Smith’s brooding lyrics while keeping the soul of the original intact. “Do what you want to whenever you want to/though it don’t mean a thing/big nothing” always sounded like an existential warning; Baker, however, delivers the lyrics in a defeatist manner, as if resigned to the subject’s self-destructive fate.
Amanda Palmer’s discordant, piano-driven take on “Pictures of Me” provides us with one of the few spine-tingling moments that sound as if the tribute artist created the cover. Palmer is in control, but the anger immediately below the surface is buzzing. The singer has never been a media darling, and we learn that her disdain for Hollywood is requited. She aggressively slams the piano keys and delivers the lyrics like jabs zeroed in on the press, connecting with the song better than she has with her many of her own.
Palmer is not the only artist to find familiar themes in Smith’s repertoire. It only makes sense that Sun Kill Moon would cover “Condor Avenue,” Elliott’s dirge about a woman, exhausted from a domestic feud, who storms from her house only to drive to her death upon falling asleep behind the wheel. Lyrically, the spoken word track reads as if it came straight off 2014’s Benji—Kozelek’s fixation with unexpected death continues in this ramshackle story, switching out his usual acoustics with reverberated electronics.
J Mascis takes further liberties in his rendition of “Waltz #2,” using the original as a starting point in creating what is for all intents and purposes, an entirely new song. Mascis’s overhaul incorporates original lyrics sparing a few of the original’s essentials (“I’m tired,” “on and on and on”) sang over his trademark fuzzy guitars and shoegazing.
Like most tributes albums, expect some Elliott Smith parroting. Tanya Donnelly doesn’t stray far from the original arrangement of Between the Bars, including stark guitar and double tracked vocals. Juliana Hatfield’s “Needle in the Hay” and Yuck’s “Bled White” don’t bring us anywhere new and feel safe.
Playing it safe is to be expected. The emotional nuances of Elliott Smith are difficult to emulate, let alone artistically evolve. Despite what casual detractors say, a trip down the Elliott Smith rabbit hole is not an exclusively a sad affair—there’s far more emotional depth to his songwriting. We’ve heard Elliott irked, frustrated, reckless, lost, forlorn, and optimistic, and typically several of these sentiments simultaneously.
These complexities seem lost on some the contributing artists, most notably William Fitzsimmons on the title track. Given the arrangement and Fitzsimmons’s soft vocal timbre, his gentle take on “Say Yes” comes off less as an optimistic rumination of a breakup than a song appropriated for an engagement ring jeweler commercial. The title only reinforces this rendering.
Fitzsimmons is not the only offender; Wild Sun runs into the same problem on album closer “Easy Way Out.” Following his denouncement of a manipulative ex (“You’ll take advantage ’til you think you’re being used/Cause without an enemy your anger gets confused”) Smith rescinds his words and insists “I wish you luck, I really do,” but it’s apparent that he’s trying to convince himself of this notion more than anyone else. He soon caves, returning to his bitter analysis of the subject’s deceptive habits. Smith penned “Easy Way Out” to address the bitterness that prevents one from moving on from a sour relationship. While frontman Glenn Kendzia’s vocal sounds gorgeous, the emotional connection to this message is missing.
Escondido’s “Waltz #1” provides redemption in the back end of the album. The duo turns the song into a dreamy ballad where noir jazz meets folk pop, tastefully building on an acoustic production with a blend of piano, trumpet, and light percussion. Vocalist Jessica Maros’s aching vocals, however, most effectively draws the listener in closer. You can almost feel the heartache itself the way she plaintively cries “I wish I never seen your face.”
Pulling off a successful Elliott Smith tribute does not require drastic measures, nor does it require remaining a purist; taking risks is not a part of the equation here. Smith won his loyal following primarily from his ability to truly connect with the listener by putting his complicated feelings in story form. He built a fanbase of great listeners and empathizers when vulnerability was not a trend. The difference between a covering Elliott and honoring him lies in the ability to connect and relay these feelings to an audience—it’s a test of listening. It does not take many rotations of Say Yes! to determine which artist were indeed listening to Elliott cry on our shoulders.