As a songwriter, the late Elliott Smith specialized in a certain blend of wistful melancholy and seething rage. This undercurrent of menace in songs like “Needle in the Hay” or “Roman Candle” was an emotional device he frequently employed, and no-one was better at this kind of sad/angry songwriting than Elliott.
Today’s Awesome Tune is, in my opinion, one of the greatest examples of this heady psychic brew. “Coast to Coast” is the lead-off track on “From A Basement On The Hill”, which is either Smith’s final album, or his first posthumous release, depending on how choose to look at it. Smith only partially completed the record before his mysterious death, and it was left to friends, family, and collaborators to mix and sequence the album. Regardless, the record offers a tantalizing glimpse of the epic new sounds Smith was working on when he shed the mortal coil. And “Coast to Coast” is the thesis statement by which Elliott Smith should have announced the new phase of his artistry.
This song is awesome for three reasons:
1) The sound. “Coast to Coast” is easily the heaviest song that Smith ever recorded as a solo artist. It rages out of the gate with an earth-shaking drum sound that sounds like it was recorded in an aircraft hanger. Smith was an extremely gifted guitarist, and the melody of this song is built layer upon layer of psychedelic guitars, and what sounds like a down-tuned bass. Conveying an eerie sense of detachment, Smith’s typically smokey vocals are layered atop each other like a warped church choir. There’s a plunky bar-room piano that always makes me think of “I Am The Walrus”. There’s a haunting, straining sound, easily heard in the intro, that sounds like reversed guitars or strings of some kind. And wrapped around this amazing sonic mess are all kinds of miscellaneous noises, including at least two men (perhaps Smith himself) reading stream-of-consciousness style poetry, one with religious fervour, and the other with weariness. It’s hypnotic and mysterious, catchy and noisy and bold and pretty and vicious all at the same time. I imagine Elliott Smith surrounding himself with this sonic chaos like a classical composer who has gleefully lost his mind. Most songwriters could try for a lifetime and never come up with anything this so well-composed and effortless. Part of Elliott’s genius was composing things that were intentionally ragged and emotionally contradictory. “Coast to Coast” has this in spades.
2) The composition. Elliott Smith’s songs are immaculately composed, and this song is no exception. But in “Coast to Coast”, all his experiments in song structure come to one glorious climax. When the song reaches its apex before the final refrain, his eerie voice repeating the phrase “coast to coast” in overlapping layers, there’s a moment of beautiful, angelic calm. And then it erupts back into the main riff. It reminds of the final hill on a rollercoaster, and it’s simply amazing.
3) The anger. I have no idea what this song is about, other than it seems to be about a relationship, but it definitely conveys the seething rage I mentioned earlier better than any other Elliott Smith song.
Enjoy this song, and remember one of the greatest songwriters of our age.