Elliott Smith's "Last Call"

Songwriting Analysis.

11/16/20237 min read

This song gets me like no other. Singing along to every word and there are lots of them. The way the melody wraps around the chord changes. The 6/8 waltz time feel always has me swaying back and forth in a trance. The dissonant electric guitar riff that picks up as the song starts building momentum. The way the arrangement as a whole develops. The "Spaghetti Western" guitar tone makes me feel like I'm in a Clint Eastwood film. I feel like this song showcases Elliott's skills as an electric guitar arranger. His use of single-note melody lines and octaves over traditional open chords or power-chords has always been one of my favorite things about his playing style. The use of tremolo and the whammy bar here and such a great "stumbling out of the bar" effect to the song.

One of the key things that I just love more than anything in this song is the augmented triad arpeggio over the "Well you know one day it'll come to haunt you." Who does that? Who plays a D augmented arpeggio over a D major chord? The most impressive part of it for me is how voice-leads the D augmented arpeggio back into the key. It's an intelligent move harmonically and I wouldn't expect anything less from him but to do such a cool thing. I just love this guy. It's done in such a way the that the average listener isn't going to hear it for too long if it is too jarring to their ears but for those of us that appreciate that sort of thing, it's a very welcome tonality. The way that this jarring tonality is accompanied by the lyrics "Well you know one day it'll come to haunt you that you didn't tell him quite the truth" really sets a tone for the listener. It's one of those moves a songwriter can do to really force the listener to pay attention and it can be risky if done incorrectly.

The melody to this song always really excites me. I love simple things with seemingly endless options. This song spends most of it's time in a Pentatonic form. You could think of it as either D Minor Pentatonic or F Major Pentatonic. With the song being in that general key, it's always really fascinating to me how it opens up so many options for reharmonization. Generally, D Major and F Major aren't found in the same key, but Elliott choses to start the song with those two conflicting tonalities. He's doing one of his trademark moves here by moving 2 sets of major chords in minor thirds, something that you just don't hear in a lot of music. Resulting in a song, with 4 major chords that seem to climb and fall simultaneously and infinitely. It's truly just great and it creates all of these different melodic options for Elliott to expand that simple Pentatonic melody. He really does take full advantage of this harmonic landscape in crafting the melody this song.

"You're a crisis, you're an icicle. You're a tongue-less talker you don't care what you say. You're a jaywalker and you just, just walk away. And that's all you do."

The desperation in these lyrics here just get to me. It reminds you of people in your life that just don't seem to have any sense of loyalty to anybody but themselves. Maybe not inherently bad, but snakes nonetheless. I get the sense that the person Elliott is talking about here could be his mother, but I don't wish to dive too much deeper into that. I think this lyric is about being abandoned by somebody unexpectedly. Somebody you trusted more than anything. They leave you almost on a whim as if your relationship with them never really mattered. That's the feeling I get from these lyrics, especially the next line. "The clap of the fading out sound of your shoes. Made him wonder who he thought that he knew." The use of the word "clap" leads me to believe that the individual he is writing about here is wearing heels. Probably a woman.

The next verse deals with what I believe is Elliott talking about himself in the 3rd person.

"Last call, he was sick of it all
The endless stream of reminders
Made him so sick of you, sick of you, sick of you
Sick of your sound, sick of you coming around"

In my opinion, these lyrics are about someone in Elliott's life that was preaching to him constantly. I think the relationship Elliott had here was becoming trivial and one-sided. He just couldn't stomach the day to day interaction with this individual. I think he could be reminded about how he's been pretty much entirely emotionally abandoned by this person. The repeated "Sick of you Sick of you Sick of you Sick of your sound Sick of you coming around" really starts to get hypnotizing and prepares you for later in the song when things really start to get repetitive. The repetition of this line drives home the feeling that it really is the same thing over and over again with this individual. That's what this line makes me feel. I'm not sure I truly understand the literal meaning of it, but that is my analysis.

"Trying to crawl under my skin
When I already shed my best defense
It comes out all around that you won
And I think I'm all done, you can switch me off safely
While I'm lying here waiting for sleep to overtake me"

To me these lyrics point to a very real abuse that Elliott was experiencing. Someone is trying to get under his skin and like a lot of people I know, his defense was to make himself a less-valuable target. To self-destruct. To hurt himself so nobody else can really hurt him. Such a heartbreaking line and something that I think unfortunately a lot of people can relate to. "You can switch me off safely." Is kind of a cool line for me too. I think Elliott is comparing himself to a piece of equipment or a machine. Something to be used and something that exists only to provide value to others.

"Yeah, yeah
You're still here but just check to make sure
All you aspired to do was endure
You can't ask for more, ask for more
Knowing you'll never get that which you ask for"

To me the line "All you aspired to do was endure" points to a childhood that was a day to day struggle. The only thing that Elliott was capable of doing was live in the moment and try to avoid the abuse. He can't ask for his abuser to go away because nobody would believe him. So heartbreaking and real.

"So you cast your shadow everywhere like the man in the moon"

Easily the coolest lyric in this entire song for me. What a mental image. This individual is making Elliott's entire world dark. I can definitely relate to this line. Not from the point of view of an abuse survivor, but as somebody who has always been in the shadows of others. There's this overwhelming feeling that somebody is so large and has so much influence over you that you've become their shadow. You will never actualize with this individual in your life. Idk it's a line that just gets me every time.

"And you start to drink, you just want to continue
It'll all be yesteryear soon"

Probably the most memorable line of the song here. I love how the arrangement relaxes a little bit here. The sliding tremolo guitars really give it that "last call" at a bar sound. If that's even a thing. If there ever was a sound to "last call" that'd be it. I also just love how you can hear the sound of Elliott's arm rubbing the body of the guitar here. Such a cool intimate sound. It almost asks like a shaker. I should add that I can be heard throughout the whole song but I think I noticed it for the first time during this section of the tune.

"Church bells and now I'm awake
And I guess it must be some kind of holiday
I can't seem to join in the celebration
But I'll go to the service and I'll go to pray
And I'll sing the praises of my maker's name
Like I was as good as she made me"

You can hear the lyrics "Church bells now I'm awake And I guess it must be some kind of holiday" in one of Elliott's early demos. On a song titled, "Shiva Opens Her Arms" which itself, is a lyric found in Elliott's later release "Son of Sam" of the Album "Figure 8." Here is a link to that song. I will likely do a full review of that song in the future so stay tuned.


A really cool line. Elliott seems like one of those writers who had the a million different expressions of a song. He could take lines from one song and seamlessly integrate them into another. I think studying all of the different ways he's done it is worthy of it's own blog post, so I won't go into to too much depth here. I just love when I am hearing the development of his ideas and how you can hear the small changes he made to refine them over his career. It is eye-opening and inspiring to see as a musician and songwriter myself.

"And I wanted her to tell me that she would never wake me
I wanted her to tell me that she would never wake me
I wanted her to tell me that she would never wake me
I wanted her to tell me that she would never wake me
I wanted her to tell me that she would never wake me
I wanted her to tell me that she would never wake me
I wanted her to tell me that she would never wake me
I wanted her to tell me that she would never wake me

I'm lying here waiting for sleep to overtake me"

What else is there to say? This line is the nightcap to the song. It repeats on and on as if for infinity. I love the vocal harmonies here. I always sing them when I listen to the record. I'm always struggling to catch my breath in between the lines. The first time I heard it I thought "Maybe this is dragging on too long?" But now every time it comes up I almost just wish it'd go on forever. I love it when a song with this much lyrical content has a simple refrain like this that you can just easily repeat on and on. It really gets you singing along.

This is one of the greatest Elliott Smith songs in my humble opinion. It just does something unique that I don't think any of his other songs do. If you haven't yet had the pleasure of hearing I will provide a link below. Thank you for reading!