Study Guide

Miss Misery

Miss Misery Introduction

In a Nutshell

This song has all the hallmarks of an Elliott Smith tune: quietly strummed guitar, a smattering of piano, vocal harmonies, dark and pondering lyrics, and an intricate and engaging musical structure. 

But how exactly did a song that never graced an Elliott Smith album during his lifetime become such a signature track for the soft-spoken artist?

By examining the late Elliott Smith's background, including the unlikely story of how "Miss Misery" came to be nominated for an Oscar, as well the artist's unique perspectives on songwriting, perhaps we can come to better understand why this song and its creator hold a significant place in the hearts of many listeners.

About the Song

ArtistSmith, Elliott
Year1997
LabelCapitol
Writer(s)Elliott Smith
Producer(s)Elliott Smith
Musician(s)Elliott Smith (vocals, guitars, bass, piano, organ, drums)
Learn to play
AlbumGood Will Hunting (Soundtrack from the Motion Picture)

Music Video

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Influences on Smith, Elliott

The Beatles
Bob Dylan
The Clash
Neil Young
Nico
The Saints
Television

Influenced by Smith, Elliott

Bright Eyes
Bon Iver
Death Cab for Cutie
Quasi
The Silent Years
Sufjan Stevens

Miss Misery Resources

Books

Autumn de Wilde, Elliott Smith (2007)
De Wilde, who was a fan of Smith's and also did photo shoots with him, gathers her photos, scraps of lyrics, comments and conversations with Smith's friends and contemporaries, and compiles them into what Amazon calls "a stunning example of how a tribute book should be made."

Matt LeMay, Elliott Smith's XO (33 1/3 Series) (2009)
The 33 1/3 series is well-known to most in the indie music community. The idea is to take classic indie albums, or albums influential to indie artists, and examine them closely for how they came to be made, what influenced them, and how they touched the author's life.

Benjamin Nugent, Elliott Smith and the Big Nothing (2005)
A pretty brief biography of the artist. If you take a look at the reviews you'll see it received mixed reactions, but it's worth checking out if you're a big Smith fan.

Albums

Roman Candle (1994)
Made with only a four-track recorder, Smith's first solo album introduced listeners to his melodic, acoustic style and whispery vocals.

Elliott Smith (1995)
Just one year later, Smith's second album comes out and builds on the promise of the first. Another Smith "hit" is the song "Needle in the Hay," which is a fan favorite and was used prominently in Wes Anderson's Oscar-nominated movie The Royal Tenenbaums.

Either/Or (1997)
Something of a breakthrough album for Smith, he for the first time introduces upbeat rock songs into his solo work. Four of the songs on this album were used in Good Will Hunting, and some fans and critics consider it his best.

XO (1998)
Smith's first major-label output, the sound here is more lush and crisply recorded than any of his previous albums, but stays true to the level of songcraft in his other work.

Figure 8 (2000)
A continuation of the larger and more intricate song arrangements found on XO, this album showcases Smith's continued growth as a pop music composer.

From a Basement on the Hill (2004)
This is the album Smith was working on before his untimely death. There is some controversy surrounding From a Basement on a Hill, dealing with whether Smith may have wanted the record to sound rougher than the actual posthumous product does in this release. Still, most critics and fans offer praise for the album as worthy to be in Smith's catalogue.

New Moon (2007)
Collected by Smith's early label Kill Rock Stars, the recordings on this record are from the years between 1994 to '97. If you like Elliott Smith or Either/Or, this is a good album for you. It also includes an early, bare-bones version of "Miss Misery" with different lyrics.

Images

A Life in Pictures
NME has an online collection of Elliott Smith photos that give you a chance to see the artist in many places and situations.

Too Sexy for His Shirt
Smith posing shirtless, but in a chair. It's kind of weird.

Elliott Smith Wall
After his death, many fans have gone to the wall which features the artwork from the album Figure 8 to leave messages for Smith and to share with others how the artist has affected their lives.

Movies & TV

Good Will Hunting (1997)
The movie "Miss Misery" was written for also features a bunch of other Smith songs.

Thumbsucker (2005)
True to its title, this movie is about a kid who sucks his thumb. There's a little more to the story, of course, and also some Elliott Smith on the soundtrack with one original song and covers of Cat Stevens and Big Star.

American Beauty (1999)
This Oscar Best Picture-winner ends with an eerie Elliott Smith cover of the Beatles' "Because" over the credits.

Guitar Hero 5 (2009)
The fifth incarnation of the popular video game features Smith's song "L.A."

Websites

Sweet Adeline
Named after a Smith song, the closest thing the artist has to an official web presence is a site kept up by his dedicated listeners.

"Singing and Nothingness," College Music Journal (2000)
In May 2000, the College Music Journal printed a really interesting piece in which Elliott Smith (who received a political philosophy degree from Massachusetts' Hampshire College before pursuing music in Portland) talks with Dean Wilson, a musician and then-graduate student in French literature.

Liam Gowing, "Mr. Misery" Spin (2004)
The piece examines the life and death of Smith with intimate quotes and remembrances from the artist's friends and colleagues as well as in-depth investigation.

Video & Audio

"Miss Misery"
Watch the official music video here.

"Miss Misery" (Early Version)
Here's the early version of "Miss Misery" that later appeared on Kill Rock Stars' New Moon.

Elliott Smith—Modern Pop's Chopin?
Pianist Christopher O'Riley talks to NPR about how Elliott Smith's work fascinated him so much that he released an album of classical piano interpretations of Smith songs.