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Throwback Thursday: “Alphabet Town” by Elliott Smith

by Angelica Catalano   Jan 16, 2014 12:06 PM EST

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I know what you want/And it's what I want/So let's go out/I'm ready to go out.

Have truer words ever been sung? Few people actually say such frank things in real life, but Elliott Smith sings them. He draws out the end of each line, so you feel the weight of every word. His saturated voice drips with longing, ringing out every last drop until you're left as dried up and empty as the characters in "Alphabet Town." It's a song set against a backdrop that takes on a haunting mood of its own. The harmonica is used delicately; when it fades out all that's left is the lingering echo of Smith and his acoustic.

Listening to this track, anyone doing the bar crawl in Alphabet City could get a faint feel of what it was like more than 15 years prior. Simply a rawer display of being young and alone, exploring a town full of grit and foreign faces. The tone isn't glamorous, but ripe with the excitement of the unknown, which still returns to the familiar idea of not ending the night alone.

Smith sings, "I know what you are, I just don't mind," stretching out "mind" till he's nearly breathless. The statement is real, it's bold -- it's no tepid "call me, maybe" game.

These were the days pre-Oscars performance for "Miss Misery" in Goodwill Hunting. Smith was still living in Portland at this time of his second studio album, but moved to New York shortly after. Subsequent places he moved to (Los Angeles) took on meaning in future songs.

He later intentionally tried to lighten up the mood a tracks such as "Baby Britain" off XO after signed to DreamWorks, but Smith's trademark remained haunting at its core and stays with us post-death. Other musicians continue to pay tribute. In his song "Late," Ben Folds sings to Smith, "When desperate static beats the silence up, a quiet truth to calm you down. The songs you wrote got me through a lot, just want to tell you that."

Listen to "Alphabet Town" here: 

Who: Elliott Smith wrote and played everything on this song

What: "Alphabet Town," Elliott Smith under Kill Rock Stars label

When: July 21, 1995 - the same year as our very different Throwback Thursday last week. Smith is more akin to our Nick Drake tribute. 

Music will never forget this artist.

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