Shuffle : Needle In the Hay
Probably anyone who reads this blog regularly will know this song. Either you'll like Elliott Smith - and if you don't, you should - or you'll have seen Wes Anderson's "The Royal Tenenbaums". This song scores perhaps the most memorable scene in that film, when Luke Wilson's Richie slits his wrists in the bathroom.
Its a great song, one of Smith's best, and absolutely shattering. Its effects - that stubborn, shuddering, repetitive chord sequence, his oh-so-intimate double-tracked vocal sounding as if he's whispering in your ear, the vague but evocative lyrical imagery suggesting addiction and depression - give it an extraordinary power, considering the fact that its just one man with a guitar. The magic in Smith's music for me lies in his ability to wrest lovely, unexpected melodies from simple, often overly-familiar chords and structures, and on his later records his knowledge on how best to present the resulting songs improved. But here the basic recording suits the song, makes the listener feel as if they're in a room alone with the performer, like hes confessing it all just to them.
It was the first Elliott Smith song I heard. He was one of those acts that suddenly seemed to be eveywhere in the popular culture with which I always surrounded myself. I read references to him in magazines and on websites. Elvis Costello raved about him in an interview. I bought "Elliott Smith", his 1995 second album, on vinyl, without ever having heard him, based on some review I'd read, probably. I used to do things like that back then, before downloading or iTunes was an option for me. "Needle In the Hay" is the opening song on that album, and it sets the tone fairly well. There's little let-up over the course of what is his most sombre and monochrome album. It was so grim it shocked me a little, but I recognised the quality of the songwriting straightaway. A year later he was a hundred times more famous when his songs appeared on the "Good Will Hunting " soundtrack, and his fourth record, "XO", was an enormous leap forward, featuring a positively Beatlesque sonic palette and some of his most beautiful and ambitious work. He became one of my favourite acts, one of the few whose records I actively waited for.
He played Dublin a couple of times, in 1998 and 2000, before a gig at a venue called the Red Box in September 2000 on the Figure Eight tour. He seemed nervous and jumpy at that gig, and I've read since that his heroin habit resurfaced during that particular tour, which may account for it. But it was a fantastic gig. I had all his albums by then, and though my favourite was (and remains) "Either/Or", the songs I loved most were those dark acoustic pieces from the "Elliott Smith" album. I knew that he was going to be backed by a full band at this gig - the material on his last two records demanded it - so I wasn't expecting to hear those songs. But then he shambled on, he and his band tuned up for a few seconds, and he started to play "Christian Brothers". Then the band joined in, and they raged through a loud, rock version. Those furiously strummed acoustic chords translated perfectly into electric riffs, it turned out. I was blown away. Delighted. It got better when he later played "Needle In the Hay" in the same fashion. The version isn't even all that different - similar tempo, same structure and lyrics - just louder and with a big backbeat. It rocked, and it was a nice night at a great gig with a good friend. I always felt a special love for that version of the song, and could never find it anywhere. It's like when a band you like cover a song you love in concert, as if they've done it just for you. This felt weirdly as if he had covered his own song. Its not better than the original, it might not even be as good, but it is great:
And the original version, as used in "The Royal Tenenbaums":