Cover versions can be different things: a memorial, an homage, a link to the past, a break from the past, a way to blow off steam at the end of a set. (If it was up to me every young band would be required by law to play a well-chosen cover as their first encore.) Occasionally though a cover version can open up a song to you, make you hear it differently than you had before. And for me this Elliott Smith cover by Seth Avett (of the Avett Brothers) and Jessica Lea Mayfield (check out “Our Hearts Are Wrong” from a few years back) accomplishes that.
The original is a jaunty, big-production (for Elliott Smith) number, a character study set to bouncy piano figure. The character is a low self-esteem model or actress, an expat Brit, hanging out in Hollywood bars while her life falls apart, adrift in alcohol and disappointment, “fight(ing) problems with bigger problems.” (The “model or actress” and “ex-pat Brit” stuff isn’t explicitly mentioned, but you just know.) The song’s narrated by a boyfriend or husband or just a guy at the same bar, who looks on at this downward spiral sympathetically, but judgmentally.
The key line is in the chorus:
For someone half as smart
You’d be a work of art…
I’d always heard this as the song’s narrator commenting on himself. If he wasn’t so smart, he’d see this (obviously beautiful) woman like everyone else at the bar does, as intriguing, nobly tragic, above all desirable. But he, the narrator, can see through to the real pain underneath, and to where it’s going to end up. He wishes she could too; he’s willing to spend a night or few with her, but not to let her drag him down with her to a “death that’s not worth cheating.” The irony of course being that by writing and singing this song he has indeed made her into a work of art.
Avett and Mayfield slow the song, replace the piano with guitar, dial up the sympathy and down the judgment. Now when the “someone half as smart” line comes around I hear it as a plea from the narrator to the woman: if you weren’t so smart and self-aware you’d see what a good person you are, you’d see yourself the way the rest of us see you. “I can’t help you until you start” the narrator says, a line lost in the mix in the Elliott Smith version but crystal clear here: I want to help you, and will, but first you have to help yourself.
Having a female voice on the song contributes to this interpretation of the song as heartfelt intervention. She takes the line:
You’ve got a look in your eye when you’re saying goodbye
Like you want to say hi
…and once again this changes its meaning, for me at least. In the original, spoken by the man to the woman, the line seems ominous, hints at self-destruction, suicide. Now I hear it as the woman in the song speaking back to the narrator: Okay, don’t walk away, yet, I’ll listen, a little. But no guarantees. Heard this way the upturn in the last verse makes much more sense. “Revolver’s turned over,” suicide is off the table for the moment. “London Bridge is safe and sound,” and maybe the song’s narrator has a shot at convincing the woman not to keep telling herself it’s falling down.
I still like Elliott’s version better. And the rest of the album this is from, which is all Elliott Smith covers, feels a little…unnecessary. Perhaps my own analysis here is unnecessary, if every Elliott Smith is really about heroin, as one ubiquitous Youtube commentator says. A question for another day.