Study Guide

Miss Misery Technique

  • Music

    Smith described the musical construction of his songs this way:

    I might think of [an instrument] sort of like a person who, maybe they're talking in the first verse, then in the second verse a new instrument comes in, and they're kind of surprised by that and they have to wait until they've readjusted to this new setting…like they're going 'Uh…wait, I lost my train of thought.' Then they come back later like, 'OK, now I feel comfortable again. (Source)

    This approach to music is pretty intriguing, and to show you how it's used in "Miss Misery," we've listed the most important instruments in the song and their purposes in the song below.

    Acoustic Guitar

    Consider this instrument as the one that represents a clear-headed speaker expressing his true emotions. The only time we hear it very clearly is at the beginning of the song, when the speaker is talking about drinking a lot to be able to deal with his emotions. 

    Fittingly, just as the speaker tells us he drowns his emotions to get through the day, the acoustic guitar disappears into a flood of new instrumentation.

    Bass and Drums/Percussion

    Arguably, these instruments play the biggest role in drowning out the acoustic guitar's voice. After the speaker tells us that he's drinking—"the poison rain" being alcohol and "down the drain" being his throat—and will soon be having a darker mindset ("to put bad thoughts in my head"), the bass and drums come in louder than the other instruments. 

    Because of their traditional description as the rhythm section of a band, we might interpret them as a signal that this drinking-to-forget thing and the dark thoughts that come with it are something of a habit. It's a "rhythm" the speaker has entered into during this confusing time in his life.

    These instruments almost never leave the song after their entrance. In fact, the only time both are noticeably gone (with the exception of a very lightly tapped high-hat) is in the verse that begins, "you had plans for both of us." Their disappearance here could be symbolic. The "plans" mentioned in the lyric were obviously not carried out. Mimicking the lack of continuum in the progress of the speaker's relationship, the rhythm section all but disappears, and the song, like the speaker, only has the faintest hint of a driving force behind it. 

    This point in the song is also the only very specific memory the speaker shares about himself and the girl. The lack of rhythm could be a signal to a listener that the speaker has retreated from the forward-marching present and gone into the past.

    Piano

    Many of us can call up some image of a singer onstage, sitting on a stool or bench, all alone except for a big, black piano. We just know that whatever is about to be sung is going to sound intimate and confessional. 

    The reason this image is important is that it could be the exact mood Smith intends to inspire when, just as almost all other instruments disappear, the piano that is elsewhere mixed in the song at a low level becomes the most prominent sound other than the vocals. This is in the same verse mentioned earlier where the singer is lamenting the unfulfilled promise of a "trip out of town."

    It seems that the speaker is unable to say explicitly "I miss you, Miss Misery," but this verse is one of the times he comes closest to it. By mentioning this trip that never happened, the speaker is probably saying, "I sort of wish we could have gone on that trip together." Just like we feel that someone sitting alone at a piano is telling us something true and personal, the simple piano line that is the speaker's only accompaniment in this part of the song lends his words a directness and sincerity that may not be as present in parts of the song with a lusher arrangement.

    Other instruments certainly join in on this song, such as electric guitar and organ, but the ones above seem to have the most major impact on the song's meaning.

  • Calling Card

    Elliott Smith's music always seemed to be evolving. The sparse, acoustic sound of his first release, Roman Candle, led to the heavily orchestrated pieces on Figure 8. "Miss Misery," which isn't on any Smith album, shows the singer caught between two worlds: the basic recording style of Either/Or and the fuller sound of his next release, XO

    Still, with Smith's unique voice and song structure, vivid imagery, use of harmony vocals, and pop sensibilities, the song is very characteristic of this artist's sound.

    The song is relevant to the artist in another way, too. When NME asked why the song never appeared on an album, Smith responded, "Because it seemed to belong to the movie it was in (Good Will Hunting), it would have taken up too much attention space and it would have distracted from the album." (Source)

    Smith's reluctance to put a famous song on an album probably cost him some album sales and easy advertising, but such a move was typical of the artist. He even went as far as to strike a deal prior to his death with his major label, DreamWorks, so that what became From a Basement on a Hill would be released by an independent label. Such actions show Smith's wishes to maintain the integrity of his music, even if it meant his income and fan-base remained stagnant.

  • Songwriting

    Rhyming in songs and poetry is an old tradition. Okay, that's an understatement—it's a really old tradition. Scholars are hard-pressed to say exactly how it started or why, but for some reason, when we hear that a singer is "falling apart" we're pretty sure that they'll soon mention their "broken heart." 

    "Miss Misery" rhymes as well, but the structure of its rhymes is a little more interesting than that of your average pop tune, and also helps add meaning to the song.

    Before we begin, though, we'd like to give you some food for thought, in case you're thinking, "Does a pop songwriter really care that much about how his rhyme scheme and technical stuff like that add meaning to his song?" Consider this quote from Rob Schnapf, a man who worked closely with Smith on his later albums: "A lot of times you couldn't take apart his songs. They were this puzzle, this intricate little puzzle." (Source)

    The same source talked about a Smith song named "Independence Day," which has "Future butterfly" as its first lyric, and features a unique, catchy section that only happens once right at the end of the song. Schnapf said, "The record company had said it would be great if we could get that chorus that only comes in at the end, if we could have it come sooner… And I remember saying, 'Well, it's a metaphor about turning into a butterfly. You can't turn into a butterfly twice.'" (Source

    What we're trying to prove to you here is that quite often, when something unusual occurs in the structure of a piece of art, it happens for a reason, and understanding that reason can really enrich your understanding and enjoyment. Plus you can look really smart to all your friends.

    Let's take a look at rhyme scheme of the verses in "Miss Misery." (By verses, we mean every thing but the sections starting "A man in the park..." and "I know you'd rather see me gone…" Those are considered "bridges" in musical terms.)

    I'll fake it through the day (a)
    with some help from Johnny Walker Red. (b)
    Send the poison rain (c)
    down the drain (c)
    to put bad thoughts in my head. (b)

    Two tickets torn in half (a)
    and a lot of nothing to do. (b)
    Do you miss me, (c)
    Miss Misery, (c)
    like you say you do? (b)

    […]

    You had plans for both of us (a)
    that involved a trip out of town (b)
    to the place I've seen (c)
    in a magazine (c)
    that you'd left lying around. (b)

    I don't have you with me, (a)
    but I keep a good attitude. (b)
    Do you miss me, (c)
    Miss Misery, (c)
    like you say you do? (b)

    […]

    Next door the TV's flashing blue (a)
    frames on the wall. (b)
    It's a comedy (c)
    of errors, you see. (c)
    It's about taking a fall. (b)

    To vanish into oblivion (a)
    is easy to do. (b)
    And I try to be, (c)
    but, you know me, (c)
    I come back when you want me to. (b)

    Do you miss me, (a)
    Miss Misery, (a)
    like you say you do? (b)

    You should be able to see the pattern here: a-b-c-c-b. This pattern usually includes "Do you miss me / Miss Misery / Like you say you do?" which is sung three times throughout the piece. This is interesting, because lines repeated that often in a song are usually considered a chorus. However, because the refrain in this song is super-important to maintaining the a-b-c-c-b pattern of rhyme that's established in the first verse, it can't stand completely apart.

    This could be symbolic of how the speaker cannot, for most of the song, seem to disconnect himself from a relationship that is causing him confusion and sadness. A different symbolism is at work, though, when at the very end of the song the usual rhyme scheme that this repeated question fits into is broken. The last time we hear the all-important query, it is divorced from its usual place with the verse and stands alone (take a look above to see what we mean). 

    Even stranger, this distancing of the question comes right after the first time the speaker mentions explicitly being with the girl with the words, "I come back when you want me to." Maybe this separation shows how, no matter how much this girl misses him or how much he wants to be with her, the speaker feels there is a distance between them that can never be overcome.