Roman Candle (Cavity Search, 1994)
Elliot Smith (Kill Rock Stars, 1995)
Either/Or (Kill Rock Stars, 1997)
XO (DreamWorks, 1998)
Figure 8 (DreamWorks, 2000)
From a Basement on the Hill (Anti-, 2004)
New Moon (Kill Rock Stars, 2007)
Elliott Smith channeled his demons — including depression and drug abuse — into songs that were observant, literate, and musically accomplished. Though his tunes were often low-key, Smith knew a lot about songcraft: He wrote pretty melodies as well as any of his peers, and he had clearly absorbed a lot of Beatles. However much he overcame those demons with his songs, he never seemed to overcome them in life. When Smith died in 2003 of an apparent suicide, he left behind an unfinished album (2004's From a Basement on a Hill) and an adoring audience who found solace in his elegant despair.
"Lo-fi," "folk-punk," and other mid-Nineties buzzwords didn't help the ferociously talented Smith when he debuted Roman Candle to a public already softened up for the charms of post-grunge acoustics by the likes of Lou Barlow. Perhaps the album fell through the cracks because of the limited resources of its tiny label, of maybe because so much of Roman Candle sounds like Simon and Garfunkel after an idealism bypass. The album set the Smith template: unflinching portraits of bad love in a low-down town, recorded with sparkling clarity, his guitar squeaking, his voice unempathetic, the rolling prom rhythms hypnotic and terribly, unrelentingly sad.
Never has "folk-punk" been as classically defined as in Smith's second album, his premiere effort for the anti-corporate label Kill Rock Stars. He spins a disorienting acoustic web of strums and plucks on guitar; his voice has all the substantiality of wet tissue. But the music burrows, digging up gems of structure, melody, and lyrical vividness that belie his naïve delivery. He tried to distances himself from the tales of misery, shifting from second to first person as his characters — "I," "you" — get thrown out of bars, hunt down a fix buzz-brained, and fumble their love lives.
On the page, it's literary punk rock, all fury at the Man (in "Christian Brothers") and weary poems of self-examination in a substance-altered state (in almost everything else). But the sound is hummable pop, slowed and drugged, with tricky but unshowy guitar work driving the melodies forward, and sung in a number near-whisper. "The Biggest Lie," "St. Ides Heaven," and especially the stunning look into the head of a middle-class addict, "Needle in the Hay" (heard on the soundtrack to the 2001 film The Royal Tenenbaums), are some of the loveliest songs about the dissolution of the soul ever written.
Smith is so coruscatingly self-aware that he's the first person to fret that a move to Hollywood might corrupt his defiant outsider stance. So it's no surprise, only a bit of a disappointment, that when he not only contributed a song to a big-budget movie but got a Grammy nomination for it ("Miss Misery," written for Good Will Hunting) and then moved to the West Coast, he would make the kind of album that complained about how fake Tinseltown is. Nor is it coincidental that he uses variations of the phrase "Pleased to meet you" to evoke the false bonhomie of SoCal business, since the last great postpunk album about the soul-draining pleasures of big-time coopting was the Replacements' Please to Meet Me. Smith didn't misplay his talent for Either/Or, just his perspective.
His use of a full band sounds rich and real — "Alameda" is a beautiful Beatlesque march, "Ballad of a Big Nothing" such pitch-perfect folk pop it's a shock the Mamas and the Papas didn't think of it first, and "Say Yes indicates he might be ready to crawl out of his navel and look at the real world more with rose-colored glasses and less of a jaundiced eye. But moaning about the absurdity of seeing "Pictures of Me" all over town or shaking his head over the big, messy (meaningless, yes, but fabulous) "Rose Parade" is just juvenile. It's the most frustrating when his best and worst impulses collide, as on the gorgeous finger-picked "Angeles," another slap at sunlit phoniness painted with exhilarating delicacy: "Someone's always coming around here trailing some new kill/Says I seen your picture on a hundred-dollar bill/And what's a game of chance to you, to him is one of real skill." Smith could hang on like Tom Waits if he'd learn to appreciate the glitz as much as he revels in the grime.
Was Smith's fear of an industrial buyout a self-fulfilling prophecy? XO finds him in the same seedy hotel room surrounded by bottles, metaphorically speaking, but his melody-making powers seem to be running on fumes. With the possible exception of "Independence Day," there's nothing as beautiful here as the least impressive number on any previous record, but what XO lacks in riveting songwriting it makes up for in weirdly widescreen instrumentation. Horns, brass, and strings wax orchestral while Smith retreads some of his favorite melodic tropes. "Amity" benefits from a crashing, textural wall of cymbals, but otherwise the arrangements don't add much besides bulk to the songs.
Recording musicians make their mistakes in public, and if XO was an experiment, Figure 8 is the smooth working invention it resulted in. There's something exhilarating about the joy inherent in a gorgeous melody, and Smith capitalizes on the frisson that results from anger, addiction, and madness being expressed in such transcendent means. So he incorporates some of the elaborate instrumentation of XO — strings — in small doses, using the guitars, drums, bass, piano, and backup vocals to give his songs a shimmering chime, Beatlesque march, or intimate folk strum. Gem-packed and less irredeemably tragic than his four previous releases, Figure 8 shows the artist at the peak of his powers, as reconciled to his professionalism as he is to his outsider status — or at least it seemed that way.
Smith committed suicide in 2003 while working on a followup album, the uneven but often lovely From a Basement on the Hill. Drugs and death figure in the lyrics, though the album isn't all dark: "A Fond Farewell" is a light rocker, and despite the title "Strung Out Again was achingly beautiful.
New Moon collects rarities and unreleased tracks from Smith's tenure at Kill Rock Stars. The songs — most of them bare-bones acoustic numbers — are understandably inconsistent, but there's an early version of "Miss Misery" and a poignant cover of Big Star's "Thirteen." In 2010, Kill Rock Stars reissued Roman Candle and From a Basement On a Hill, giving the raw-sounding debut a cleaned-up mix.
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