A Distorted Reality is Now a Necessity to be Free

Before taking his own life, Elliot Smith wrote and recorded a song called “A Distorted Reality is Now a Necessity to be Free,” safely nestled at the end of his posthumously released final album, From a Basement on a Hill. Instrumentally, the song approaches the blatant pop destination of Abbey Road, playing the Beatles card without losing its own tormented off-key identity. With its piano, laden with interchanging acoustic and electric guitars, the strained background vocals chiming, drums echoing with cymbals by the second verse, it’s a masterpiece in arrangement, but it serves a greater purpose. Above all, “A Distorted Reality is Now a Necessity to be Free” is proof that Elliot Smith still haunts the world.

I daresay this song is Smith’s crowning lyrical achievement. Actually, it’s much more than that, but I’m afraid superlatively favorable adjectives cannot do it justice. For such a big Elliot Smith fan, this is no casual declaration. If my intent is to make the song more than it is, I mean to overshoot, exaggerate, and surpass my intent into the collective agenda. For the past few months, “A Distorted Reality is Now a Necessity to be Free” has been beckoning my commentary. To go where, I didn’t know – until now. Digressing into personal space, I have to break down and explain how I first became so taken with this song and why.

Scanning down the track names of From a Basement on a Hill, every title seemed befitting of Elliot Smith’s posthumous album, nothing to alarm the average fan saddened by the news of his passing. “Coast to Coast,” “Little One” and “Memory Lane” strived for delicate simplicity. “Strung Out Again” and “Pretty (Ugly Before)" held up a confessional mirror. “Don’t Go Down,” “A Passing Feeling,” and “The Last Hour” played apocalyptic, perhaps footnoting the means to an end.

But when the last track title stared back at me, it wasn’t the end; it was just the beginning. “A Distorted Reality is now a Necessity to be Free” didn’t feel like dying; it was very much alive. Here was a songwriter whose lyrics always took a wrong turn, teetering on suicide one song, drowned in emotional depression the next, often battling the demons of drug abuse across entire albums. Yet a ray of hope shimmered at the end of his rope. I listened to “A Distorted Reality is now a Necessity to be Free” with the fascination of a discovery. For once, an Elliot Smith song didn’t just captivate me introspectively; it enlightened my social conscience, invoking mad thoughts about the world, projecting them outward instead of inward.

If you give the song a listen, you may not hear what I hear. But that’s the beauty of subjective interpretation. Reading commentary like mine is a passive enterprise. It rarely spurns people to think outside the comfort zone because the writer's opinion eclipses their own, with the chances of getting a word in edgewise prevented by the beginning of the next sentence. The best op-ed pieces either tap into a common thread or raise a red flag, often shocking the reader to attention, but sadly, the public eye looks elsewhere for its opinions.

While the credibility of talking heads on Fox/CNN is another (but far more discouraging) matter, I often wonder why we continue to read drab, uninspired album and movie reviews and still manage to respect the reviewer in the morning. It’s been said before, and I’ll say it again. What does Roger Ebert say about our taste in films? What gives him the power to service our society, to filter the best from the mediocre to the worst with his flick of his thumbs?

Just the same though not as almighty, where do I get the idea that I can ramble on about a 3 minute, 21-second masterpiece in songwriting? While I can’t speak for Ebert and the talking heads, I always have an ulterior motive. Provided you’ll never listen to the “A Distorted Reality is Now a Necessity to be Free,” my best attempt to put it into words would involve making grand allusions about our current political realities, insinuating that Elliot Smith knew something was amiss when he checked out.

Revisiting the point I lost when I tore off on the last tangent, Elliot Smith primarily wrote about emotional sickness, triggered by a roller coaster gone way off the tracks, lost in a never-ending sea of failed relationships. He rarely ventured outward, and when he did, he found himself in 1977, writing a song called “Summer of Sam.” What is so shocking about “A Distorted Reality is Now a Necessity to be Free” is that it doesn’t wallow. It looks around. The resulting perception marks a turning point in Smith’s songwriting, and it saddens me that he’s not around the corner to realize beyond 3:21.

“A Distorted Reality is Now a Necessity to Be Free” is Smith’s longest song title and perhaps the most poetic (“St. Ide’s Heaven” and “Needle in the Hay” also stand out). But the song has an urgent message that defies all wordplay. Smith is already pretty worked up by the time he breaks into the disjointed first chorus, his voice stained with bitterness. “You disappoint me; you people raking in on the world. The Devil’s script sells, you the heart of a blackbird.” His intense resentment grows even more desperate in the second chorus. “It’s so disappointing; first I put it all down to luck. God knows why my country don’t give a fuck.” I feel chills down my spine upon realizing that Smith’s disappointment has inspired my own. His only shot at political commentary has left an irreversible mark, one of frustration, anger, but within the pieces of a broken hope, tattooed like the puzzle pieces on my back.

Throughout the song, Smith’s soft voice only strengthens, stained with the inherent injustices of another tomorrow, his final glimpse of an outside world coming off way worse than any drug-addled introspection. But his use of “necessity to be free” is an open call to action, to anyone listening, to open the mind beyond the disappointing distorted reality he left behind. With our current corporate power subverting the truth at the expense of its people, we may not be able to see beyond the smoke and mirrors. It is my fleeting hope, however, that the avenues for freedom of speech will allow us to respond to the challenges of the times, not just through commentary, but also through fiction, interpretation, action, and criticism.

Fading out into ghostly oblivion, Elliot Smith’s last request, “Shine on me, baby, ‘cause it’s raining in my heart,” attempts to dry the disappointment, coming off as a fitting prequel to the best optimism Abbey Road has to offer - “Here Comes the Sun.” In my mind, it can only succeed. In my mind, regardless of whether the devil’s script sells, regardless of whether God knows why my country don’t give a fuck, regardless of whether it’s raining in my heart—in my mind, every distorted reality is now a necessity to be free. I’m just sorry Elliot Smith won’t be around to see the sun.


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