Elliott Smith And The Gift Of Vulnerability Music

Music is many things to many people. For people who are struggling to cope with significant life problems, music can sometimes become a lifeline; a way of feeling understood in the midst of feeling quite alone. We might call such songs vulnerability music because they are a comfort and sometimes a guide or example to people who are feeling particularly vulnerable. While not exactly hopeful, always, these songs speak to people.

The artists who make vulnerability music are able to offer comfort to hurting people for a simple reason. They've been there. They've felt similar feelings. They've somehow managed to encode some of their own pain and fear into their songs. People listening to such songs resonate with the emotion encoded there. There is a spark of recognition, followed by a lessening of feelings of loneliness and freakish isolation as the knowledge that someone else has visited the odd territory in which you find yourself sinks into you like a warm blanket settling. I've felt that way a few times. Patients I've worked with have mentioned having similar feelings of gratefulness for particular songs.

A few artists have become special figures for me at different points in my life. Therapists, almost.

At a particularly awkward and lonely point during my twenties, I found myself playing Joni Mitchell's Court and Spark over and over. Her lyric for the song "The Same Situation" spoke to me quite clearly:

Still I sent up my prayer
Wondering who was there to hear
I said send me somebody
Who's strong, and somewhat sincere
With the millions of the lost and lonely ones
I called out to be released
Caught in my struggle for higher achievements
And my search for love
That don't seem to cease

A painful and emotional struggle I went through during my late 30s (having to do with the dissolution of a treasured relationship) found me fixating on a song by Neil Finn (of Split Enz and Crowded House fame) called Anytime:

I see a dog upon the road
Running hard to catch a cat
My car is pulling to a halt
The truck behind me doesn't know
Everything is in the balance
Of a moment I can't control
And your sympathetic strings
Are like the stirrings in my soul
I could go at anytime
There's nothing safe about this life
I could go at anytime

I had the song off an album called "One All" which was the American release. I understand it goes by the name "One Nill" elsewhere.

Those particular former crises are resolved now, and have become a part of my history rather than my day to day existence. I still listen to those two songs on occasion, but there is more nostalgia in them than urgency.

Today, there are a lot of songs I listen to, but no songs that I'm especially identified with. I don't think this is because I've outgrown the need to identify with songs. More just that at this time in my life things are good enough that I am not needing them right now.

I can still appreciate a good vulnerability song, however. The motive behind this essay is, in fact, to share one with you, if you aren't aware of it already. That song is called "I Didn't Understand", and it appears on the album XO by the late singer/songwriter Elliott Smith.

And so you'd soon be leaving me
alone like I'm supposed to be
tonight, tomorrow, and every day
There's nothing here that you'll miss
I can guarantee you
this is a cloud of smoke trying to occupy space
What a fucking joke

If you own a copy of this song, I suggest it's worth a second listen. If you don't, a version is currently available on YouTube but it isn't the XO version. The clip starts out with an interview so give it a minute for the songs to start:  (2010-06-24 : Actually, the original video I had cited was removed from YouTube, so the best I can do at present is to link to this snip of the XO version of the song. )


On XO, the song is recorded in a completely acapella style with Elliott's voice providing the lush melodic instrumentation as well as the lyrics. The effect is simply stunning. I had purchased this CD years ago and forgot about it, and then found it again recently while between places on an airplane, staring at clouds and receptive. I was seduced again by the rawness and immediacy of the pain that the man was able to capture; was talented enough to shape and record; was courageous enough to share with others. Listening to this song it is so obvious how completely depressed and hopeless he was feeling in the moment of creation. Since I am not feeling low these days, my reaction is not to identify with him (as I have identified with artists in the past), but rather to resonate in sympathy. If there is a song in the universe that better captures the spirit of self-loathing and hopelessness characteristic of depression, I don't know what it is.

Listening to Elliott sing, it strikes me how self-contained and withdrawn he could be. I get the feeling he was excessively modest (due to a self-depreciating streak) and devalued his songwriting, playing and singing abilities. I sincerely doubt that he managed to appreciate, in his short life, what a priceless service he was providing to others in voicing feelings that other people simply could not otherwise describe. I doubt he had any real comprehension of how inspiring he was. When you're depressed like Elliott clearly was, nothing feels satisfying and all you want to do is stop feeling.

I'm just one person in a very large world of sensitive people who appreciate and identify with vulnerability music; who identify with it in times of emotional need, and who appreciate it as both a profound act of description and as a generous act of sharing. My own background and musical tastes limit what I can share, however, and as I think about it, it occurs to me that there is a whole world of vulnerability music out there that I probably don't know about, just as some readers probably don't know about the songs I've mentioned above. It is important to share this stuff, so that other people can discover and benefit from it. I'm surely hoping that readers will see fit to add comments to this essay describing the songs that they have resonated to in times of personal difficulty and pain; songs in which they have found comfort and a respite from loneliness.

A word of caution is worth noting here. People write vulnerability songs during times of great personal pain. In writing a song, they manage to preserve that moment of pain, but in so doing, that pain becomes static and detached from real emotional pain in the world. Real emotional pain in the world is not a static thing but rather something quite dynamic. It ebbs and flows. It resolves. People feel better. If they are not cured entirely, at least they might feel better than they did during the moment they captured in the song. People don't write vulnerability songs when they are feeling better, however. The creative process that gives birth to the song is not available on those brighter days. If songs are written then, they are likely to be happier songs.

Vulnerability songs have to be understood as snapshots of moments in time. They're like photographs. If you mistake one you're too closely identified with for a motion picture, and start to think that things can never change, why, you're likely to become suicidal in a worst case. For instance, Elliott Smith died in 2003 or so of knife wounds, that may very well have been self-inflicted (I'm not sure that anyone knows for sure what really happened). Please don't make that sort of mistake. Feel and relate to the song, know that you're not alone, and then please ask for some help.

For what it is worth, I'll close with a snip of a song lyric that a much younger college aged version of myself wrote many years ago during a particularly difficult time:

There's nothing to save you now
no angel penetrates the dark gray sky
just disembodied voices asking 'why?'
You're all alone now in a universe
with only room for one
the strange illumination;
a memory of the sun.

Turns out that a while after I wrote that, I did start feeling better. It wasn't clear at the time that things would get better, but they did.