Two songs you need to hear: Sean Michaels's playlist of the week
Ted Hawkins' Sorry You're Sick is a soothing tune for those under the weather, while I Figured You Out highlights Elliiot Smith's depth of experience
Ted Hawkins – Sorry You're Sick (1982)
It's an underserved genre – the get-well-soon song. When friends or family are sickly, we usually get them flowers or a card. Maybe we make them some soup. But really we should give them songs, or at least occasionally we should: a bouquet of chords to lift their spirits. Unfortunately for 2016-17's unusually severe flu season, not many songwriters have set their sights on coughers and sneezers; it can be hard to find something to deliver with that bone broth. Ted Hawkins's Sorry You're Sick is the purest such song I can think of, a penicillin of quick-strummed guitar and Hawkins's rough tenor. Born in Biloxi, Miss., in 1936 (and dead when he was just 58), Hawkins' talents never quite lifted him out of a life of street performing. Perhaps he preferred it that way: singing bare-voiced to strangers on Venice Beach, a little Bill Withers and a little Sister Rosetta Tharpe, wishing everybody better.
The best thing about Sorry You're Sick might be how obvious it is. Nobody needs to be well-rested or clear-headed to understand it – certainly none of the snifflers in my house is either of these things. But I can put it on as a kind of love letter, or medicine, letting Hawkins explain how much he wants his darling to get better. "I'd be your doctor if only I could!" he shouts. I'm just not sure I approve of his prescription. (It's liquor.)
Elliott Smith – I Figured You Out (1997)
Amazing that there's still any Elliott Smith material left to release. Since the singer died in 2003, his estate has issued several archival compilations proving the depth of his material. I've Figured You Out is part of yet another small set, this time accompanying the 20th anniversary of Smith's album Either/Or. Despite the fame that came to him through the film Good Will Hunting, and the notoriety surrounding his death, his work may still be underrated. I think it's because of its consistency of sound: the old denim softness of Smith's (usually multitracked) voice, his scruffy/tasteful arrangements of guitar and drums, the back-of-notebook poetry. But Smith lived (and loved) hard; there's a depth of experience to his most comfortable songs. This is true even of a number such as I Figured You Out, which he didn't like enough to keep. (He recorded this demo for his friend, Mary Lou Lord, who would release a version herself.) It's withering and tender, thorny as a rose bush, with a melody almost as catchy as Big Star's Thirteen. Why didn't he release it? Sometimes the strangest part of making art is the inclination to hold it back.
Sean Michaels received the 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize for his novel Us Conductors. He is the editor of the music blog Said the Gramophone.