Where Do I Start With | Elliott Smith

In a radio interview with Triple J magazine, Elliott Smith was asked where he felt he fit in with the music scene of 1998. He replied: “The less I think about it the happier I am. I don’t really care where I fit into or if there’s anything to fit into. I just like music, you know, that’s the thing. It’s very uncomplicated.”

It’s quite difficult not to gush when it comes to the work of Elliott Smith. For many, he was the banner man for a generation of people looking for an authentic voice to fill the void left behind after the Seattle grunge explosion. His unassuming manner and modest nature, paired with his talent as a multi-instrumentalist and knack for poignant lyrics, left people with an artist to root for. That being said, the key to Elliott’s appeal isn’t best examined by way of cultural impact or mass acclaim; instead, with Elliott, it’s personal. His music is the sound of those who don’t fit in and it is for this very reason that he manages to connect with people on such an intimate level. Whenever he is discussed, it feels more like people are talking about an old friend, rather than something as abstract as a rock star. His greatest gift is that he always seems like he’s right there with you. A friend who won’t tell you everything’s going to be okay but instead, will stay there with you and make you feel less alone. When it comes to fans of his music, every recommendation becomes autobiographical.

Although his fame didn’t come until he went solo, Elliott’s professional career began as one-fifth of Portland alt-rockers Heatmiser. Here, he and college friend Neil Gust,shared songwriting duties, with Smith more often than not assuming the role of frontman. The band released a strong collection of work over their short lifespan (three albums and one EP in total); however, it became clear early on that Elliott was on a separate path. While Heatmiser opted for a distorted, grungy sound, Elliott’s songwriting gravitated towards a more nuanced and melodic tone. By 1994, he had already began working on a collection of lo-fi tracks between shows, that would end up becoming his debut solo album, Roman Candle.

Unlike the work of Heatmiser, Roman Candle is a record that demands your attention with a whisper, not a shout. Much of the album’s charm comes from its ramshackle recording style. Entirely recorded on a 4 track, with Smith playing every note, the hushed, multi-tracked vocals make it feel like you’re being let in on a secret that requires your attention. This is compounded by the fact that many tracks on the album remained unnamed upon their release.

Roman Candle comes out of the gates to an almost unfairly realised degree, grappling with complex themes such as the eponymous opener that is speculated to be based around the problematic relationship that the songwriter and his sister had with their stepfather. Elliott sets the tone with a powerfully frank and anger-filled verse:

He played himself

Didn’t need me to give him hell

He could be cool and cruel to you and me

Knew we’d put up with anything

Here, we see a quiet anger that the artist would utilise throughout his career. The outro refrain of “I want to hurt him” never raises above a whisper and typifies the strength and restraint he was able to implement as a songwriter.

Feelings of alienation and loss are pillars of his work and all make an appearance on this record. On ‘No Name #1’, which is thematically reminiscent of the Smiths classic ‘How Soon is Now?’, the writer places its main character at a party where he tragically tries, and fails, to connect. This is most crushingly explored when the narrator, who’s wondering “what’s the worst thing I could say?” attempts to make small talk, but loses confidence halfway:

You remind me of someone’s daughter

I forgot her . . . I forgot her name, ashamed

Go home, live with your pain

It was his ability to so succinctly express this kind of anxious horror that made my connection to his music so acute. It almost feels like he left the song untitled so that the listener could claim some sense of authorship as it plays over a memory of their own, personal disaster.

However, not all songs on Roman Candle are written with such a direct connection to their writer. ‘Condor Avenue’, for example, explores the loss and guilt felt by a narrator whose partner, after a drunken fight, drives off and ends up in a fatal car crash. Being abstract, though, does nothing to dilute the lyrics’ effectiveness. I still find it hard to think of a better summation of the panicked logic that surrounds loss than the narrator manages to sum up here in two lines:

I don’t know what to do with your clothes or your letters,

It’ll make a whisper out of you

Once you’re a couple of tracks into this record, it becomes difficult to imagine that Elliott was able to see himself as anything other than the artificer of his own musical vision but it feels, at times, like he doesn’t want to admit it. He doesn’t even feature on the accompanying cover artwork; instead, there is a photo of Gust.

Following on in a similar low-fi style as its predecessor, Elliott’s eponymous follow up improves in both depth and breadth in almost every way. Widely known now for its use to weapon-like effect in The Royal Tenenbaums, ‘Needle in the Hay’ would rightly become a staple on every collection of his work. Often mistaken as a personal account discussing his much-reported battle with substance abuse (which ironically wouldn’t become an issue until later in his life), the track explores themes of addiction and dependency in the frame of someone in a state of withdrawal. The unpredictable changes in the riffs and rhythms mirror the narrator’s mental state, who isn’t looking for anything other than to find peace:

I can’t be myself and I don’t want to talk.

I’m taking the cure so I can be quiet whenever I want.

The narrator is not looking for a dizzying high or a cathartic release, but whatever substance he can get his hands on that will just make things bearable.

The album continues in a similar sonic style as Roman Candle, but shows Elliott pushing himself as both a musician and a lyricist. From the frenetic fingerstyle of ‘Southern Belle’, to the addition of an air organ in ‘Coming up Roses’, the artist employs a new sense of space and depth in his songs that hadn’t been seen elsewhere in his work.

Here, too, we witness Elliott kick off a tradition that he would carry throughout the rest of his career, bringing everything to a close with a succinct, sub three-minute track. This story of a broken relationship that has left one person playing with the idea that death is their only escape still has the power to reduce this writer to a human puddle.

So, here’s where being objective starts to get really tricky. Either/Or is a perfect album. Coming in tastefully under 37 minutes, the album manages to be deep but never cloying, simple yet accomplished. It’s the absolute zenith of the low-fi sound for which his early career became known. These 3 albums are to his oeuvre what the IRS years are to R.E.M. and this here, this is his Document.

Either/Or was released in 1997 and would end up being the catalyst that would elevate Smith from being an indie darling to an international star. Not only was the album itself critically acclaimed, 5 of his songs featured on the Good Will Hunting soundtrack. During these sessions, Smith also penned ‘Miss Misery’, which would get him an Oscar nomination for Best Original song.

Even now, watching the performance, you can almost feel the Portland indie scene willing him on as Smith, dressed in a white suit, performed a shortened version of the song while being flanked by an orchestra that appears just off-stage.

You could write an entire article on this performance, but it’s best to just watch it.

A personal high point relating to this whole situation was how Smith would talk about Celine Dion after the fact:

“She was really sweet, which has made it impossible for me to dislike Celine Dion anymore. Even though I can’t stand the music that she makes-with all due respect, I don’t like it much at all-but she herself was very, very nice. She asked me if I was nervous, and I said, ‘Yeah,’ and she was like, ‘That’s good because you get your adrenaline going, and it’ll make your song better. It’s a beautiful song.’ Then she gave me a big hug. It was too much. It was too human to be dismissed simply because I find her music trite.” 

It was at this stage that the world got let in on the secret and, with that, his anonymity was forever lost. I’d defer from cherry-picking favourites here, as the album is best taken as a body of work; however, ‘Angeles’ and ‘Between the Bars’ are an absolute must-have for any collection. As a musician, it’s impossible to overlook the virtuosity of the playing on ‘Angeles’. A few years ago, I remember going to a cocktail bar in Dublin and my attention getting drawn to a performer who executed a note-perfect cover. It was so good that I was compelled to congratulate him after the show. He thanked me and said: “I’ve only been in Ireland for two months and I asked my housemate to suggest some music to me that may not have made it over to South America. He gave me this and I liked it so much I tabbed the whole record. I can’t wait to get to see him live.” I had a brief moment during which I wondered if I should let him in on the horrible truth, but I didn’t have the heart to muster anything other than a non-committal smile and nod.

This new-found exposure led to a contract with DreamWorks Music and afforded Smith a far larger budget to record music than he had ever had access to previously. In addition to this, a budding friendship arose between Elliott and fellow multi-instrumentalist Jon Brion. Although the writing of all tracks here is attributed to Smith solely, Brion features as an additional musician and his fingerprints can be felt all over XO. The marriage here on a musical level, is inspired. Unfortunately, their friendship didn’t last and a full partnership never came to be. In 2016, an excellent time capsule of this relationship was unearthed by way of the pilot episode of a music show that Jon was going to host. They suit each other so well, it upsets me:

XO opens up with a subtle nod to Elliott’s core fan-base. ‘Sweet Adeline’ starts off un-assumedly, with just a lone guitar and vocal. At around the one minute mark, an organ delicately colours the track. All expectations are then subverted as cacophonies of instruments explode onto the track circa 1:30 in a way that has never yet been heard in his music. It’s like the artist has been let loose in the toy shop and could not be having more fun.

Another thing that becomes evident on this record is that Smith was in his waltz period, as this time signature pops up repeatedly throughout. This is obviously the case on ‘Waltz #2’, which has to be a shout for one of the best tracks he ever penned. A bittersweet song, tackling the topic of familial disconnection, culminates with a chorus of swirling strings that circle around a refrain of “I’m never gonna know you now but I’m going to love you anyhow” that is one of the record’s standout moments.

The album also contains moments of levity and bounce, most notably on tracks like ‘Baby Britain’ which bounds along to a piano tune that wouldn’t sound out of place in a turn of the century, frontier bar or the horn-driven two-and-a-half-minute wonder of ‘A Question Mark’, where cascading vocals and jangly guitar make it sound like a George Harrison track featuring Johnny Marr.

That said, the disillusionment and cynicism that his new-found fame and substance-abuse brought, creeps its way into the narrative here. ‘Everybody Cares, Everybody Understands’, which was apparently inspired by a failed intervention by his friends and family, leaves Elliott in fighting form. In a less than poetic moment, he frankly addresses his self-appointed saviours by saying:

You say you mean well, you don’t know what you mean

Fucking oughta stay the hell away from things you know nothing about

XO would be followed up with the last album Elliott would see released. On Figure 8, you can hear him push himself even further, unwilling to rest on the sound for which he had already become known. This album is painted with even more intricate arrangements and instrumentation. From the lavish piano work on ‘Son of Sam’ to the harpsichord intro and bleeding guitar notes of ‘Junk Bond Trader’, Smith was firing on all cylinders. The album growls with a new found sense of distortion.

Lyrically, this album allows a little more screen time to cynicism as a theme. Songs like ‘Wouldn’t Momma be Proud?’ and ‘Everything Means Nothing to Me’ are drenched with venom and give an insight into the frustration he was feeling around his legacy and the commodification of his art. According to an article published by Spin magazine:

“He was fed up with the current state of his life. A lot of people from the label were telling him he needed to get it together. He was so sick of people talking about the future. So he carved the word ‘now’ into his arm with a knife. And he sat down at the piano and wrote ‘Everything Means Nothing to Me’ as the blood was dripping down his arm.” 

Throughout 2002, an unwell Smith would only play three shows, one of which was a notorious opening set for Wilco at which he aborted seven of his 15 track set because he found himself unable to play them. In early 2003, however, it seemed like things were looking up. Elliott’s sobriety and his excitement about his new music had spread an air of quiet optimism amongst his fans and a string of live performances indicated a heavier new sound, with the band dipping into a number of Built to Spill and Oasis covers, while also playing tracks that would later appear on From a Basement on a Hill. Unfortunately, this optimism was misjudged as on October 21st of 2003, Smith would tragically be found dead in his home with two, reportedly self-inflicted, stab wounds to the chest.

As a parting gift, Elliott’s final work would be released to the public in 2004. From a Basement on a Hill builds on the sound of Figure 8 by embracing an even more discordant inclination. Elliott was an artist who seemed to be able to trip over into a drum kit and end up making a perfectly harmonious sound. On this album, it feels like he’s starting with something beautiful and trying to obfuscate the melody with discordant sounds and counter melodies. This can be seen clearest in tracks like ‘Strung Out Again’ in which a fuzz guitar cuts through the track from out of nowhere. A similar idea is implemented on ‘Kings Crossing’, in which a sleepy piano melody and multi-layered vocals give way to crashing drums and whining guitars seconds after vocals proclaim: “The game looks easy, that’s why it sells”.

Personally, I think ‘A Fond Farewell’ is the most complete and realised moment of the record and makes me ache with want for what could have been. The marriage of Smith’s acoustic with the clean, tremolo lead electric line is sublime, while a bouncy rhythm forces your gaze away from the sombre nature of the lyrics. If one track from this period were to encompass what made Smith special, it’s this one.  

However, the album is not without its moments of quiet beauty too. ‘Twilight’, for example, shows Smith at his most vulnerable. With his voice on the edge of cracking, respite is only given to the listener in the inspired midsection, when an electronic organ replaces the lyrics for a verse.

The record was released unfinished, with tracks Smith had been working on taken and sequenced after his death. Although it’s impossible to know how the album would have sounded, had Smith been around to complete it, the record holds up on its own merits, giving an insight into the kind of territory he was exploring.

Elliott was a supernova of a songwriter whose legacy left a fissure in the music world that won’t ever be fully stitched together. Those who loved his music, like myself, will wait with bated breath for every unreleased track and B-side we can get our hands on (and given the quality of what we’ve seen so far, we won’t be disappointed); that being said, even though it’s easy to feel cheated by losing such a talent so prematurely, it’s best to focus on what we do have. Elliott left an immensely strong and unique body of work for us to get to know, and with the impending Either/Or re-issue on its way, there’s no better time than now to start.

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