As always, before we get started breaking down the song, listen to it here.
Recorded and released as a single in 1999, Happiness is a beloved late-period Elliott Smith song. It’s one of the finer tracks on his 2000 album Figure 8 (which most fans think of as his “L.A.” album), and it features the lush instrumental and vocal arrangement that is the defining characteristic of that record: The song opens with a keyboard and a guitar (I think) playing a layered, pattering riff, almost like raindrops, over a thumping bass. After a few seconds a kick drum starts, and when the vocal comes in Elliott sings over guitar and a light, atmospheric organ. And oh, those lyrics. The opening verse describes, at least on the surface, a fatal car accident:
“Activity’s killing the actor
And a cop’s standing out in the road
Turning traffic away
There was nothing she could do until after
When his body’d been buried below
Way back in the day”
However, I tend to think these lyrics aren’t meant to be taken literally. As I wrote when discussing Elliott here, his lyrics, while occasionally narrative, tend to work more metaphorically. I’d argue that’s what’s happening in Happiness. The accident isn’t literally a deadly crash, but is actually about the loss of something else unrecoverable–the death of a relationship, a dissolution that neither the boy nor the girl could anything about “until after.” The activity that causes the crash is outlined in the chorus:
“Oh my, nothing else could’ve been done
He made his life a lie so
He might never have to know anyone
Made his life the lie you know”
In short, it’s about being dishonest with oneself, conforming to the system, putting on a socially acceptable front (a subject Elliott addressed in a number of songs on Figure 8—Wouldn’t Mama Be Proud, Junk Bond Trader, Can’t Make a Sound), and how this fundamental dishonesty damages the connections between people. This theme continues in the second verse:
“I told him that he shouldn’t upset her
And that he’d only be making it worse
Involving somebody else
But I knew that he’d never forget her
While her memory worked in reverse
To keep her safe from herself”
That line about “involving somebody else” is vague (although a third party is involved in the first verse as well: the “cop standing out in the road”), but at a simple level it’s about allowing someone or something to come between two people. The difference in this verse is that the girl is the one being dishonest with herself: While the boy will “never forget her,” she’s trying to turn her memory around and forget about him, “to keep her safe from herself.” The chorus then repeats, except, again, with the girl being the one to make “her life a lie.”
After the verse, he plays that rainy day intro riff once, and then launches into the gorgeous coda, which is the key to the song, both lyrically and musically:
“What I used to be will pass away, and then you’ll see
That all I want now is happiness for you and me”
Elliott was a tortured person, an abuse victim and a notoriously destructive alcoholic and drug addict. The lyrics of the coda are about trying to move beyond what’s happened in his past, perhaps to stop trying to use the escape of drugs and booze, and to be honest with himself. If he can do this, perhaps he can find happiness–the title of the song, which only appears as a resolution in the final line–for himself and the girl he loves. The music accentuates this hope for togetherness with a beautiful harmony vocal from Jon Brion. Elliott’s then-girlfriend, Joanna Bolme, said in Autumn de Wilde’s book about Elliott that he wrote the song shortly after moving to L.A. with her, a rare moment of happiness for him. It’s a song that’s sad, about how relationships fall apart, but at the same time hopeful, that maybe we can fix ourselves and make things work.
As we all know, things didn’t work out that way for Elliott. It’s the worst sort of irony that the man who wrote this beautiful, hopeful song died (whether self-inflicted or not) after an argument with a later girlfriend, Jennifer Chiba. Elliott’s tragic death adds another layer to the song, in particular the coda: We can listen to those lyrics and feel hope for ourselves, but at the same time sadness, because Elliott couldn’t find happiness before he passed away. In a way, this double meaning–which I don’t think is entirely coincidental or unintentional, as Elliott often thought about death and suicide–makes Happiness a definitive Elliott Smith sing.
A couple of other quick notes on this song: I particularly love the live and solo acoustic versions of it. Here’s one from Jon Brion’s short-lived MTV show (with Brion on xylophone); here’s one from a show at Amoeba Records in San Francisco, my favorite record store anywhere; and here’s one from a show in Paris that sounds so ghostly I almost started crying while listening to it just now. And as always, lyrics are from the beautiful Elliott Smith fan site Sweet Adeline.
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