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    SONGWRITING: Elliott Smith’s “The Biggest Lie”

     

    For our two year anniversary, Andy got me the new Elliott Smith KRS re-releases on vinyl. Anyone who has ever heard me talk about Elliott Smith knows what an important songwriter he is to me: and while I don’t usually think that the job of a music blog is to tell people why a song is personally important (instead, I think it’s important to focus on the objective good of a record), it’s almost impossible for me to talk about Elliott without it being extremely personal to me. Elliott’s songs came to me at a time when I was making conscious decisions about who I wanted to be, and though I know most people reading this think of his music as sad, I kept telling Andy, I was always soothed by it. Elliott always calmed me down: he took the parts of my head that were loud and straightened them out. When I’m listening to Elliott sing, I’ve only got one voice in my head– and it’s his, not one of the many “you should” voices I’ve normally got in there.

     

     

    Though I’d say “Rose Parade” is probably my favorite of his songs (at least, it’s consistently the one I refer to as my favorite, largely for the stanza: “The trumpet has obviously been drinking/ He’s f***in’ up even the simplest lines/ They say it’s a sight that’s quite worth seeing/ It’s just that everyone’s interest is stronger than mine”), I was stunned into humbled silence when listening through his self-titled disk again. With a little bit of distance between me and the person I was when I first heard these songs, they sounded new and impressive. Especially “The Biggest Lie.” I’ve always known and loved the song, but now, with my new distance, I was overwhelmed by the songwriting technique in the song.

     

    I’m waiting for the train
    Subway that only goes one way

    The stupid thing that’ll come to pull us apart
    And make everybody late
    You spent everything you had
    Wanted everything to stop that bad

    Now I’m a crashed credit card registered to Smith -
    Not the name that you called me with
    You turned white like a saint
    I’m tired of dancing on a pot of gold-flaked paint

    Oh we’re so very precious, you and I
    And everything that you do makes me want to die
    Oh I just told the biggest lie
    I just told the biggest lie
    The biggest lie

     

    Though there are obvious references to suicide or death (artful, though– “Now I’m a crashed credit card registered to Smith” being the most blatant), the most overwhelming thing I come away with is how good a writer you have to be to write an entire song this beautiful and then nix it at the end. There are two possibilities here: either the narrator has actually lied, or he’s lying now to save someone’s feelings after saying a hurtful truth. Either way, the entire narrative is discredited. That’s a brave move.

     

    I guess more than anything, I wish I could write as bravely as Elliott always does. There’s a fearlessness in revealing this kind of vulnerability. By being so honest– “everything you do makes me want to die”– and then taking it back, Smith creates a much more haunting song (and one you almost have to listen to over and over– “I just told the biggest lie” makes you loop all the way back to the beginning to see the whole song through that new lens). What this means to me is that Elliott wrote two different songs here: the one on the surface, and the new one that starts with that last line.

     

    Everyone who knows this song is probably thinking, “of course,” right now, and anyone who hasn’t heard it probably thinks I’m making too big a deal out of it. But I’ve been thinking so much lately about how words work, and how to stack them in as effective a way as possible– this to me stands as an example of absolutely perfect writing. No pulled punches in any of the song, but the last line is a knock-out. And I think in some ways, songs like this are more than just a story: “The Biggest Lie” is beautiful and nuanced, but it’s so painfully human.

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