It's been a while since we talked about Elliott Smith (last time was here), and it's been a few years since I took myself to task publicly (which is what blogs are all about) with post-mortem releases from the man who is one of my first musical true loves. The latest of these is an alternate version of "Alameda" from 1997's Either/Or, the first album I bought by Smith and still my favorite in his catalog. Kill Rock Stars, which put out Either/Or, his self-titled, and Roman Candle, is celebrating what would have been Smith's 43rd birthday with a series or rare and unreleased work of which this alternate take is the first helping.
"Alameda," the original, is my favorite Smith track. Its gentle swing and almost whimsical guitar play bely the personal abasement as a series of ghostly harmonies float with a resplendent electric guitar riff. The bridge and its doomy lyric ("the fix is in") is, for my money, the best of his career as it's capped by the admonishment "if you're alone / it must be you that wants to be apart."
The most noticeable difference you'll find between this alternate version and the orignal is the chorus which changes from "nobody broke your heart / you broke your own because you can't finish what you start" to "see what you're gonna start / all you're good at is breaking little hearts." The lyrical revision from the alternate to the original speaks to Smith's uncanny ability as a songwriter. As we saw on New Moon, the drafts of tracks showed someone who was as adept at mining his autobiography as he was at revising and cutting to the quick of a song. The punch of the chorus in the original is rendered completely decimating by the capping lyric, whereas in this version Smith opts for pity rather than the muted anger in the Either/Or version.
The alternate version also features intriguingly different production. It's more bass-heavy and the bridge features a smattering of piano which is left out of the original. The result is a version which seems more heavy-handed and more rhythm-based.
While I still move into periods of listening to Smith, his death has left a damper on my ability to be sucked in. It's hard to listen to tracks like this and, frankly, it's their release which makes me revisit my intense sadness at his passing. If there is a bright side to having to revisit such melancholy, it's getting to listen to Smith in a new way. The alternate version of "Alameda" elucidates his immense skill as a songwriter, how his tracks appear as drafts which were edited, cut, rewritten, and revised until they emerged into the glorious sheen that we heard on the albums. The shittiest feeling in this recognition of Smith is having to write about what he did in past tense.