In early 2003, Elliott Smith played two sold out shows at the Henry Fonda Theater in Hollywood. For years, Smith descended into drug addiction. He hadn’t produced any new music since 2000 – three years earlier with Figure 8. His attempt with the shows was to try and reestablish his credibility as a live performer. During the shows, he scrawled the words: “Kali the Destroyer” on his left arm in block letters.
In Hinduism, Kali is considered the goddess of time and change. Having felt that his career was at a crossroads, it’s understandable that would be attracted to the Hindu Goddess. Like many Hindu gods, Kali represents a duality in life. Her appearance is menacing – her skin is black, and she has multiple arms. But despite her appearance, she is often seen as one of the most loving and protective of the Hindu Gods. (It’s also worth noting that in the Beatle’s film Help! the fictional goddess is named Kaili, a variation on the spelling of Kali.)
Smith’s life at that point was a series of contradictions. He wrote haunting and self-loathing lyrics, washed in soaring melodies. He was critically acclaimed, adored by many fans and musicians – yet was a guy who couldn’t love himself.
In the summer of 2003, on his 34th birthday, Smith finally attempted to kick his drug habit, even giving up red meat, and caffeine as well. Months after he scrawled “Kali – the Destroyer” on his arm, Smith was beginning to finally come out of the haze – he was also starting to record for the first time in years.
“Pretty (Ugly Before)” is the musical representation of the duality of Kali. During his strung out stage, he felt “so ugly before… [and] didn’t know what to do.” But now, he feels pretty – “pretty enough for you” – pretty enough for his audience to final make music again, and express something different than self-hatred. Smith came close to destroying his career through the depression and drugs. Yet, just like Kali who is the creator and destroyer, Smith also the only person who could resurrect his own career and make it pretty. “Is it destruction you’re required to feel?” He asks in the song. It doesn’t matter anymore, because “there is no night-time – it’s only a passing phase.”
Unfortunately for Smith, the “sunshine” didn’t last long enough. He died for multiple stabs wounds to the heart, in October 2003, mere months after attempting to kick his bad habits.