Sunday, November 4, 2012

Songs #289 & 290 - Smith and Stevens

Song #289 of 9999                                                Song #290 of 9999

Title: Twilight                                                          Title: The Dress Looks Nice on You
Artist: Elliott Smith                                                  Artist: Sufjan Stevens
Year: 2004                                                             Year: 2004
Album: From a Basement on a Hill                        Album: Seven Swans

While researching this post, I read a Spin Magazine quote that said Sufjan Stevens' 2004 album Seven Swans sounds "like Elliott Smith after ten years of Sunday school." So it seemed appropriate to pair the two in my final day of posting about songs from 2004.

While Stevens's career was just taking off, Smith was releasing his own swan song following his untimely and somewhat mysterious death. Like a lot of posthumous releases, From a Basement on the Hill isn't quite right and seems like a step backward from the crisp songwriting and complex arrangements of Smith's previous major label releases. Producers insist they added nothing to the recordings, but that's the problem—Smith likely would have filled in the holes in the arrangements even as he was trimming the songs of their excesses. Where the album does shine is in its lyrical content, which reads like a cry for help from the perpetually troubled artist.

I chose Smith's "Twilight" because of how sparse it is, especially where his lead vocal is concerned. Typically, he would double or even triple his lead vocal in unison to thicken it and I like the simple purity of this recording. It is perhaps the most complimentary track to Sufjan Stevens's single "The Dress Looks Nice on You," which exemplifies his low fidelity method of writing and arranging. Stevens's approach to harmony is more "Medieval" than "McCartney" but the delicate wispiness is a trait he shares with Smith. Stevens doesn't have the lyrical skill of Smith and his stories derive from the Bible rather than heroin. Yet, it seems plausible that he could have inherited the lo-fi acoustic crown even if Smith hadn't died, given the increasing complexity of Smith's recordings. But recent forays into electronic music would suggest Stevens is no longer interested in delivering his message in a whisper. If nothing else, we can probably thank Stevens for re-popularizing the banjo which seems to have found a home in the modern indie folk movement.

See you tomorrow in 1965.

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