I have been an introvert all my life.
As a kid, I spent a lot of time alone, reading and listening to music. (And I mean listening to music. Intently. With no distractions. The kind of listening I long for now.) I had few friends, and wasn’t particularly good at talking to people. And while I’m much better at interacting now, and I’ve somehow managed to attract a good many wonderful people to my life, I still often need to be alone.
You can laugh all you want to at those “introverts are” memes, but they often serve as a much-needed reminder that I’m not an outlier. Introversion is a real thing, a personality type that millions of people share. Sometimes it’s equated with shyness, and I can tell you in my case that’s not really true. I talk to everyone, and I’m pretty good in social situations, now that I’m past the more awkward teenage years. But I can only do that for so long – my limited supply of energy runs out, and I need to be back home with a book or a movie or a record, recharging.
As glad as I am that I know more about introversion more now, I’m doubly glad that it’s becoming more widely understood. (Seriously, thanks, Facebook memes.) When I tell my friends that I need to spend a weekend alone, they get it. When I leave a party early, they understand why. Being an introvert doesn’t mean I crave human connection any less, but it does mean that, as much as I crave it, I can only take so much of it.
I feel like music exhibits these same qualities of introversion and extroversion. If there’s a poster child for musical extroverts, it’s probably Elton John. Over nearly 50 years in the music biz, he’s been that gregarious, outgoing, big personality, the guy everyone wants to talk to at the party. And he seems to feed off it, playing to the crowd, remaining a showman even into his late ‘60s. Even when Elton gets introspective, his music is still big and welcoming, rather than insular. I could never imagine him wrapped in a blanket, refusing to go out and play a show. (That doesn’t mean he isn’t this way – I don’t know him – but his public persona is very much an extrovert.)
And he clearly doesn’t care what anyone thinks of him. Just look at the cover of his new album, Wonderful Crazy Night – it looks like it was taken with an iPhone, and it captures him at his goofiest. The slapdash nature of the cover might make you worry about the album, but there’s no need. Wonderful Crazy Night, Elton’s 32nd, follows up on the organic and inspired The Diving Board, and injects a nice dose of fun.
In fact, where the previous record was often ponderous and self-serious, this new one is just a blast. The Elton John/Bernie Taupin collaboration is still going strong after five decades together, and quite often this album recaptures the classic feel of their mammoth sprint through the 1970s. Elton’s on piano throughout – there isn’t a cheeseball synthesizer to be found – and his melodies are sprightly and bouncy. The title track sets the right tone, bounding in on a galloping piano figure, Elton looking back on his career as if it were a single night, and celebrating it. It’s simple and forthright and just what it needs to be.
Elton again produced this record with T-Bone Burnett, and the live, organic feel he brings serves these songs well. I’m a particular fan of the stomping “In the Name of You” and the delightful “Blue Wonderful,” but there isn’t anything here that stops the train. Even when he slows it down for “A Good Heart,” which teeters on the edge of mawkish, it works – the horns and harmonies bring it home. The album flies by in 41 minutes (49 if you buy the version with the two swell bonus tracks), and when he gets to the heartfelt finale, “An Open Chord,” he’s built up such a head of sincerity that he makes you feel the key line: “You’re an open chord I want to play all day.”
Perhaps the most striking thing about Wonderful Crazy Night is how joyous it all is. Elton isn’t wrestling with anything here, the heavier themes of The Diving Board all but forgotten. That makes this a slighter record, and probably a more forgettable one, but the major-key contentment that powers it is infectious. It’s an album that makes me want to go out and have fun.
And when I’ve done that and I’m completely out of energy, I’ll always have introverted musicians like Elliott Smith to come back to. Last year I had the pleasure of seeing Heaven Adores You, a superb documentary about the man I consider one of the best songwriters of my generation. Elliott was the ultimate introvert, a shy and quiet loner crying out for connection, yet unable to take it in for very long. The arc of the movie is, of necessity, a tragedy – a genius creating fragile, gossamer art who was suddenly thrust into the spotlight, found it too much, suffered from depression and alcoholism and drug addiction, and ended up killing himself at the age of 34.
Smith never shied away from these themes in his music. His songs, both with his band Heatmiser and on his own, are full of loneliness and rejection and compulsion. He wrote beautiful, complex melodies and bled all over them. Sometimes listening to Elliott Smith is like eavesdropping, so honest and raw are his words. The relative trickle of posthumous material proves that this was a consistent quality, his work an emotional exposed nerve. I’ve gratefully taken everything of his I can get.
What might be the final piece of unreleased Elliott Smith music is now here in the form of the soundtrack to Heaven Adores You. Thankfully, we haven’t reached Montage of Heck levels of bottom-scraping here. With a couple exceptions, this is a strong and consistent alternate look at Smith’s musical life, from his earliest recordings to his moment in the sun, and to his struggles after that. There are numerous highlights on this soundtrack – hearing Heatmiser bring muscle to “Christian Brothers” while Smith’s solo band tackles “Plainclothes Man” is revelatory, the numerous in-progress pieces give insight into Smith’s process, and hearing early versions of “Waltz #1” and “Coast to Coast” is a pleasure.
And hearing the audio of Smith’s performance of “Miss Misery” on Late Night with Conan O’Brien brings back so many memories. This performance, his first on national television, was so wavery, so deer-in-the-headlights, that it was clear to anyone watching how uncomfortable Smith was with his newfound fame. From there we get a few cuts from the final album he released when he was alive, Figure 8, and that’s all, since his final years are well documented on other posthumous records.
That’s all, that is, except for one thing, right at the end: “I Love My Room,” a song Smith wrote when he was 13 years old. It’s clear, even from this, that the man was destined to be a phenomenal writer. The song takes so many turns and detours, while never feeling self-indulgent. It’s beyond the talents of most adults, and it makes my heart ache just thinking about what could have been. He never really stopped loving his room, and the glare of the spotlight turned out to be blinding. Hearing so many unfinished pieces so full of potential here is heartbreaking, knowing that all of that potential is gone.
But it’s just so wonderful to hear Elliott Smith sing and play guitar that I’m happy and grateful for one more chance to do it. Smith’s music is like a warm cocoon, a blanket of isolation keeping the rest of the world out. In this cocoon, you can be as hurt and as empty as you want, you can feel any way you need to feel until you’re ready to face the outside again. It’s no wonder I’ve resonated so strongly with it for nearly 20 years. Listening to this, I’m sad all over again that Elliott Smith has left us, but grateful all over again that he was here at all, making his honest, powerful, introverted music.
Next week, who knows? Maybe Kanye? Maybe not? Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook here.
See you in line Tuesday morning.