As a self-proclaimed music enthusiast, it’s sometimes hard to gauge what I think other people might like because personal bias gets in the way a lot. Something that I’ve connected to holds a lot more significance to me than to some stranger. I couldn’t hand a shoegaze CD to a random man walking down the street and expect him to fall in love with it. But like all audiophiles, I started somewhere, and certain artists broadened my musical taste to include more genres. One of those artists is Elliott Smith.
From the lo-fi simplicity of his self-titled and Either/Or to the lush arrangements on XO and Figure 8, I somewhat revere Elliott as a musical genius across all spectrums. However, coercing others into recognizing his brilliance is not an easy task. It takes a certain kind of listener to appreciate the vast variety of his catalogue. His most acclaimed work by the general public would most likely be Either/Or, partially due to it’s prominence on the Good Will Hunting soundtrack. It is because of this album that Elliott became known for thin, dark, acoustic ballads.
Many attempts at “introductory” albums have been made, but most of them pull strongly from Either/Or, partially due it’s acclaim and partly because of the cheaper licensing while he was on Kill Rock Stars. However, these compilations fail to delve deep into his discography, and would probably fail to enlighten a new listener to Elliott’s fine ear for music.
Instead, I say, that one should go backwards through Elliott’s music, starting with Figure 8. Personal bias aside, I think Figure 8 is the most streamlined form of Elliott’s music. It has the catchy radio single, the softer acoustic folk songs, and the lush instrumentals. It is a lot more accessible than From a Basement on the HIll and seems pretty cohesive in relation to the rest of his catalog.
Transitioning from Figure 8 to XO introduces the listener to the vintage pop side of Elliott’s songwriting, ridden with multiple layers of vocal harmonies. His Dreamworks debut features the irresistibly catchy classic “Waltz #2” as well as softer and subtly sad ballads like “Pitseleh,” “Oh Well Okay,” and “I Didn’t Understand.” His talent for intricate acoustic fingerpicking is revealed again through songs like “Tomorrow Tomorrow” and “Independence Day.”
Either/Or, the highly acclaimed lo-fi masterpiece, showcases Elliott’s raw talent in its most natural form. The album relies heavily on acoustic guitar, with the occasional addition of soft electric solos and backing instruments all played entirely by Smith. The delicate melodies and whispery thin vocals became Elliott’s trademark to the public eye, while the somber lyrics throughout are brought to an uplifting end with the light and optimistic closer “Say Yes.”
Elliott Smith, his dark, minimalistic self-titled, parades the listener through a range of emotions. The harsh tones behind “Christian Brothers” and “Southern Belle” reveal the angry side of Elliott’s songwriting. “Needle in the Hay,” a seemingly depressing song about narcotics, became a crowd favorite, even more so after being featured in Wes Anderson’s 2001 film The Royal Tenenbaums. However, the album closer, “The Biggest Lie,” remains my favorite Elliott Smith song. The simplicity of his strumming pattern and the long vocal notes create a beautiful and soft expression to form the imagery of both love and longing.
Roman Candle, Smith’s first solo work, features some of the same lo-fi simplicity of his self-titled in a much more raw form. Recorded entirely on a 4-track in his Portland basement, it lacks the crisp, clean notes of his later works but makes up for the stripped down quality with hard-hitting lyrics and heavy themes. This album was personally a lot harder for me to get into than his other full-lengths, but there is a rare kind of beauty to it and the unique addictiveness of Elliott’s songwriting prevails.
I don’t fully consider From a Basement on the Hill an Elliott Smith album. Indeed, they are his songs, but the album was mixed, mastered, and sequenced posthumously so it remains unclear how Elliott himself would have crafted it into an album. He explores a new range of technology, pedals, and sounds and artfully incorporates them into his songwriting in a way that allows him to retain his own originality while testing his limits in new styles of distortion and noise.
Of course, even his non-album tracks are masterpieces of their own. The New Moon compilation features several gems from his acoustic years; my personal favorites are “Go By,” “Georgia,” and “Whatever (Folk Song in C).” Many Basement era tracks have been leaked to the internet, but an unfathomable amount of b-sides from 1998 onward still lie in the archives of some Dreamworks executive, yet to see the light of day.
Another host of rarities lies within archive.org, which keeps a public domain of live bootlegs and offers full access to live versions and cover songs that Elliott performed. One live rarity in particular has always struck me: “You Make It Seem Like Nothing” (also entitled “Come to Me”) 9/21/1996 at the Impala Cafe. It contains some of his most profound lyrics backed by an intricate guitar melody. He only played this song once more in his career, much later, in 2003 when he was making his comeback from his battle with addiction. It is rumored that a studio version was recorded at the time of the Jon Brion/Basement I sessions, but it has yet to surface. I can only hope that someday it will receive a proper release and earn its own spot amongst the classics that made Elliott renowned for his talent.