Behind The Song: Elliott Smith, “Miss Misery”

Elliott Smith on tour, circa 1998. Photo courtesy "Heaven Adores You"

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Elliott Smith on tour, circa 1998. Photo courtesy "Heaven Adores You"
Elliott Smith on tour, circa 1998. Photo courtesy “Heaven Adores You”

Has there ever been an unlikelier Oscar-night performer than Elliott Smith? There he stood at the Academy Awards in 1998, dressed in a white suit with his black hair matted down on his head, flanked by no less than Celine Dion, having just completed an achingly tender performance of “Miss Misery,” which was nominated for Best Song following its inclusion in Good Will Hunting.

Smith lost that night to Dion and her Titanic wailing, but his appearance was a catalyst for his ascension from the indies to a major label. Thankfully, he was able to keep the intimacy and incisiveness of his early recordings, even as his later records beefed up his sound with more recording bells and whistles. He was always a cult artist; the cult just got progressively bigger and more passionate as his music received wider exposure.

“Miss Misery“ acts as a kind of fulcrum between the early period of Smith’s career, which included his work with the band Heatmiser and solo albums Roman Candle (1994), Elliott Smith (1995) and Either/Or (1997), to the later era, when he became the ultimate singer-songwriter for the bereft and broken-hearted thanks to instant classics XO (1998) and Figure 8 (2000). Without it, it’s possible that the word of mouth might have spread and gained him a larger audience, but having millions of film fans hear such a lovely song, first in the credits to Good Will Hunting and then again at the Oscars, certainly greased the wheels toward the breakthrough he encountered.

The song also marks a turning point between the skeletal tracks found on Smith’s earliest solo works and the ornate recordings that would dominate XO, Figure 8, and 2004’s From A Basement On A Hill, which was released a year after Smith’s death. An early version of “Miss Misery” can be found on the 2007 Smith retrospective New Moon, and it features just acoustic guitar and vocal, along with lyrics that he was still in the process of editing. This version projects a vulnerability so profound it’s almost harrowing to hear.

When Smith was called upon to write a song for Good Will Hunting by Gus Van Sant, a fellow Pacific Northwest denizen and the film’s director, he offered “Miss Misery” and this time recorded it with many of the instrumental flourishes he would adopt for his subsequent albums. At the core was still the acoustic guitar and vocal, but this time around they were joined by jaunty piano, White album-style electric guitar, circus-like keyboards, and ethereal backing vocals. The swirling, woozy music and Smith’s sweet and sad melody proved an irresistible combination.

Like so many other Elliott Smith classics, the lyrics of “Miss Misery” defy easy understanding. On the one hand, it can be heard as the lament of a guy addressing a former lover who still keeps him on a short enough leash to give him a tug now and again (“you know me/ I come back when you want me to”). But the lack of details about the title character outside of her interactions with the narrator, coupled with her downcast name, could lead one to believe that “Miss Misery” is only a manifestation of the sorrow that always accompanies him.

In any case, Smith keeps things from getting too maudlin with some doses of black humor, such as his meeting with an optimistic fortune teller (“told me I’m strong/ Hardly ever wrong”) and the television’s “comedy of errors” that mirror the misfortune in his own life. Yet there are also moments of intense introspection, the kind that made Smith one of the most fearless songwriting chroniclers of internal torment. The “poison rain” falls on him following his boozing at the start of the song, while, in the final verse, he imagines a way out: “To vanish into oblivion/ Is easy to do.” And bookending it all is the yearning in his vocal as he sings that mellifluous refrain: “Do you miss me, Miss Misery/ Like you say you do?”

As positive as the success of “Miss Misery” was for Smith’s career, the increased popularity and renown it brought might have had an adverse effect on his well-being. In the biographical documentary Heaven Adores You, Smith can be seen saying, “I’m the wrong kind of person to be really big and famous.” A few years later, he seemed to reference his odd brush with fame in the song “Stupidity Tries,” when he sang about “Another drunk conquistador/ Conquering the Governor’s Ball,” the Governor’s Ball being the name of the famous post-Oscar party for the biggest stars.

In that same song, he sang, “Got a foot in the door/ God knows what for,” another couplet ambivalent about the trappings of success. The pessimistic way to look at “Miss Misery” is to say that it brought its author into a world he was ill-equipped to handle. But it’s hard to look askance at such a wonderful song that also served the purpose of broadcasting the fragile brilliance of Elliott Smith’s songwriting and performing to the masses.

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