Beginnings in Portland
In the early to mid-1990s, Smith was part of a band named Heatmiser. Smith described the band's style as "fist-in-the-air post-punk." Though the group was successful enough to be signed to Virgin Records, Smith also spent a lot of time at home working on quieter, acoustic guitar-based solo songs that he recorded at home. It was this area of his artistic pursuits that eventually gained him the most fame and regard from fans and critics.
While recording and releasing three solo albums in the mid-1990s—Roman Candle, a self-titled record, and Either/Or—Smith often played shows in the Portland, Oregon, area and talked with other local artists about home-recording methods. One of these creative locals was Gus Van Sant. As Smith told one reporter, "I knew [Gus] from Portland, Oregon, 'cause I lived there for a long time and he lives there. We had mutual friends and he used to come see me play sometimes and he had a couple of my earlier records." Why exactly is this one guy important? Well, because he directed the Oscar-winning film Good Will Hunting, which features not one, not two, but six Elliott Smith songs on its soundtrack. Written by then-unknowns Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, the film is the story of an unlikely math wiz from the rough south side of Boston who finds it hard to cope with the pressures of genius and love. Van Sandt chose Smith's songs for the film because, as AMG writes, "his whispered vocals and quietly nimble fingerstyle are perfect for the film's exploration of intimacy and underambition."
Of the many Smith songs on the film's soundtrack, only "Miss Misery" was written for the movie. The others appear on Smith's album Either/Or, which Pitchfork puts at #59 on its list of the Top 100 Albums of the 1990s. When asked how "Miss Misery" came into being, Smith answered in a characteristically nonchalant style: "Gus seemed to want me to make something for the movie in particular, so I played him some things that I was sort of working on and one of them turned into that song."
Elliott Smith, Meet Fame
Good Will Hunting met unexpected success and was nominated for nine Oscars, including a nod for Best Original Song for "Miss Misery." As a result of his nomination, Smith was given the chance to perform at the American film industry's largest event of the year. It was a somewhat surreal thing to happen to a small time singer-songwriter on the tiny Kill Rock Stars label. Smith spoke about his dance in the international spotlight in an interview: "It was really weird, you know? It was pretty fun for a day. I don't know if it would be fun to live in that world, really. But, it was fun, it was a kick…It was pretty funny. I mean, you know, it was all these famous singers. And then…who's that guy, you know? In the white suit with dirty hair, you know, who hasn't sold millions of records, what in the world is he doing there? And I was wondering the same thing." Beyond just describing Smith's feelings about his Oscar performance, this quote tells us a lot about the songwriter. Even one on one with an interviewer, his feeling of awkwardness in talking about his accomplishments comes through, and though he had fun, his desire to steer clear of any sort of celebrity lifestyle is apparent. Despite this distaste for the limelight, however, Smith's budding fame gained him a major label contract with DreamWorks Records.
Also interesting is that, soon after Smith's Oscar performance, "Miss Misery" left regular rotation in his live set lists. As one interviewer suggested, this may be because Smith's fan base was loyal to his small-label output and therefore felt like requesting his most famous song was somehow taboo. In that same interview, Smith also mentioned, "I played it about a million times, I'm really tired of it."
Breaking Down "Miss Misery"
Now that we know how "Miss Misery" and Elliott Smith came to prominence on a national scale, is there anything we can do to try to understand the darn thing? Looking at the lyrics, it seems to be images of a tumultuous relationship spoken by someone in the midst of emotional turmoil. Smith described it as "just sort of like an impressionistic thing about the movie, sort of like a little dream."
Smith has often been called things like "an evocative poet of the tormented soul." Essentially, most people think he's a sad guy who plays sad music. Listening to a song that starts, "I'll fake it through the day / with some help from Johnny Walker Red" and has the word "misery" in the title, it's easy to see why such an image has attached itself to Smith's work. However, Smith refuted that characterization, saying, "There has to be a certain amount of darkness in my songs for the happiness to matter. Just 'cause I'm not singing about sex and sports doesn't mean I'm sad." Examining evidence for this claim in "Miss Misery" seems far more intriguing than going down the well-worn path of characterizing Smith as a downer.
So, let's take some license and, instead of thinking of this Miss Misery as simply being a symbol of the state of loneliness and depression the speaker constantly returns to, we'll imagine her as an actual girl. This seems plausible given the song's connection to a movie in which the main character (played by Matt Damon) falls in love with a graduate student (played by Minnie Driver) of whom he feels unworthy because she's from a good family and he's a poor kid from a bad neighborhood.
If we look at lyrics like "A man in the park / Read the lines in my hand / Told me I'm strong and / Hardly ever wrong / I said man you mean," it seems like the guy in the song is creating the problems in his life with his own inability to accept his strengths. The speaker is complimented by a palm-reader—the man in the park who reads the lines in the speaker's hands—and then immediately starts to contradict the man's positive assessment of him. A similar theme pops up later: "You had plans for both of us / That involved a trip out of town." The "you" in the song would be the woman the speaker cares for, and this woman seems to have seen enough future with the speaker to plan a trip with him. Perhaps this means that the speaker is the one who withdrew from the woman, and it's not her who left him. This becomes especially plausible given that the song is played in Good Will Hunting during a scene where the main character is driving off to some unknown destination, leaving behind his former life.
Okay, so how does all this relate to Smith's quote about happiness, especially in a song that seems like, given its speaker's sad demeanor, it could just as easily be called "Mister Misery"? Consider it this way: This song is about someone working out a problem. By asking the girl if she misses him, the speaker is only trying to assure himself that what he feels for her is real and making sure she returns the emotion. He wouldn't be so concerned about the answer to his question if the girl didn't, along with feelings of doubt, inspire happiness and contentment in him.
Smith even hints that the speaker may eventually get the answer he wants when he sings, "It's a comedy of errors, you see / It's about taking a fall." In classical dramatic terms, a "comedy of errors" is a piece in which the protagonists find themselves in many strange and ludicrous situations before the story ends happily for them. With this reference, Smith could perhaps be alluding to a similar outcome for the forlorn speaker in his song.
Elliott Smith's Legacy
It's unfortunate that the artist behind "Miss Misery," even while rising in stature in the music world, was not able to achieve a happier ending for himself after his well-documented problems with drug abuse and mental instability. On October 21, 2003, at the age of 34, Smith died in what has been deemed a suicide. It is reported by his friends that in the period preceding his death, Smith had stopped using illicit substances and was approaching his life and music with a new vigor.
Despite this tragic ending, it is far better to remember Elliott Smith for his work than for his personal troubles. He once said, "some people start…bands to, like, express their anger or whatever, and I'm not trying to express anything in particular. If they [my songs] come out kind of angry or depressed, I'm sometimes kind of angry and depressed and so are a lot of people." "Miss Misery," the song that reached the broadest audience of any Elliott Smith work, stands as testament to how the unique voice of the late artist upholds the sentiments of that quote. Because Smith did not write his songs with any sort of heavy-handed meaning in mind, "a lot of people" are able to connect with them in an intensely personal way.