Bright colors and crisp days notwithstanding, death skirts the edges of fall: Cold wind bites at noses and fingertips and blows brilliant leaves from trees until they stand stark against a cloudy sky. Birth and growth fade into harvest, stockpiling, turning over, as ash from so many fire pits.
This cycle and what it represents -- imminent winter -- is why fall has always seemed to me the moodiest of the seasons, spooky even in the sunshine, spooky not just because of fake spiderwebs in every storefront.
The singer-songwriter canon brims over with spooky, melancholy dudes who don't shave and sing about tragedy, but they all pale in comparison to the tortured prose of the late Elliott Smith.
Elliott Smith, whose bucketfuls of heartrending lyrics were offset by a punk-rock past and just enough snideness to appeal to my teenage self. Elliott Smith, who could make even a sunny-side-up Beatles tribute ("Baby Britain") seem muted and sad. His acclaimed 1998 record "XO" remains my personal favorite -- it's just as good in grad school as it was in high school, when I first shrugged off the gospel I'd been raised with and snuck into the decidedly darker territory at the other end of the radio dial.
I remember staring out of someone's car window during a cold rain to the gentle patter of "Pitseleh," sitting cross-legged under a quilt as the country strains of "Sweet Adeline" filled someone else's room with hazy, late afternoon sun. Under a harvest moon, a campfire crackling, as the lush harmonies-within-harmonies of "Tomorrow, Tomorrow" spilled through someone's stereo. Wrapped up in someone's hoodie, leaves blowing across a back road, banging a steering wheel to the rough jangle of "Everybody Cares, Everybody Understands," adding angry cuss words to the lyrics: "Yeah everybody [expletive] CARES about YOU, yeah whether or not you [expletive] want them TO!!!"
But the standout track on this standout record is "Waltz #2," and always will be. A little too odd to be a straight-up ballad of love lost due in part to the tap-TAP-tap, tap-TAP-tap of its waltzy drumbeat, this song reached through the tinny speakers of my radio, into my chest cavity, and plucked out every single one of my heartstrings in 4:40 minutes flat.
The twinkling refrain, "I'm never gonna know you now/But I'm gonna love you anyhow," becomes a coldly obsessive mantra by the end. I'm sure there was a breakup, a bad day, a fight that predisposed me to the emotional shattering of "Waltz #2," something that made me gaze out the window to the expanse of darkening woods at the edge of my parents' backyard and ache all over. I don't remember what it was, but the whole record still has that effect on me.
That's why I can only listen sparingly, usually on fall days when I know there's spiked cider and friends in a warm kitchen waiting for me, keeping me from getting too sad.
Discover more great autumn albums in our "Falling in Love With Music" series.