By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
It's this combination that kills: a musical intimacy sealed from the opening note and a point of view that shifts in seconds from hazy anonymity to sharp-eyed self-critique. On each subsequent release, Smith has expanded his sonic palette and continued to add detail to his tangled take on the world. Through his lyrics and delivery he's developed a personal ideology -- a personality -- that almost competes with those of his quite considerable influences. The Velvet Underground's Nico and Lou Reed. Neil Young. John Lennon and Paul McCartney.
IT'S UNLIKELY THAT ANYONE TRACKING ELLIOTT SMITH'S CAREER arc in 1994 would have predicted future success. On first appraisal Roman Candle seems like a perfect, quiet coda to a short career. And it would not be unfair to say that, from the vantage point of '94, Smith's appearance on the 1998 Academy Awards telecast, performing his Oscar-nominated song "Miss Misery" in a medley alongside Celine Dion and Trisha Yearwood, would have seemed only slightly less out there than the possibility of, let's say, Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur turning up somewhere along the French Riviera as a duo, having faked their deaths to evade the certain scandal that would have erupted had their secret, long-simmering romantic bond been revealed.
Well, it was quite strange anyway.
Smith grew up in Omaha, Nebraska; Dallas, Texas; Portland, Oregon. After what he describes as a somewhat inadvertent tenure at Massachusetts' Hampshire College, he ended up back in Portland, where he formed the band Heatmiser with a friend from school, Neil Gust. Touring various West Coast punk clubs and eventually releasing three records on the L.A. indie Frontier Records, the band found itself in the midst of the Pacific Northwest's grunge-rock explosion.
But in between tours, Smith was quietly honing his own material, knocking off solo tracks in various basement studios in Portland. When he'd finished nine songs, he gave the local Cavity Search label a tape in the hope of getting it to press up a single; it offered an album. After taking part in a small West Coast tour combining spoken-word and acoustic acts, his folk-tinged solo work began to gain more notice in the punk scene than Heatmiser's songs ever did.
"I don't want to, by default, insult those other musicians on the tour," recalls Slim Moon, who did spoken word on the trip, "but by the second show I knew that he was in a completely different league from the rest of us. In a different league that only includes a handful of musicians that I've ever known." Moon, who owns the Olympia, Washington, label Kill Rock Stars, quickly signed Smith, a shift for a label that was best known as an incubator for the riot-grrrl movement, having released records by bands such as Bikini Kill and Bratmobile.
For his part, Smith says he had no particular dedication to the scene's sound, only a strong regard for the fertile ground for creativity and iconoclasm it provided. "I liked punk in my idiosyncratic way. As a musical style I like it, but not more than any other musical style. What I like a lot about it is the changefulness of it, the way it attacks the preciousness of pop music and the demand to sell a lot of records and to contrive songs so that they appeal to the widest number of people. I like where it's coming from, and I still feel connected to that."
Moon thinks Smith's reasons for ending up in the punk scene might go a bit deeper than that. "You know, in 1967 it wasn't such a big question: Are the Beatles genuine? Are they corny? Are they phony? They just were genuine, even if they were trying to sell records . . . But 50 years of rock & roll has made the genre so stylized, so entrenched and so much a business that nowadays the people who are just fucking fed up with all of that preprocessed, and sort of pasteurized, fake, meaningless vibe of so much commercial music just tend to gravitate toward punk rock. Elliott has the kind of personality to be disgusted by the whole idea of the music business. But he also just happens to have the kind of talent of a great, great songwriter, like a John Lennon or a Randy Newman. But because of this situation, because he couldn't have just instantly gone, 'Okay, I'm a songwriter, I'm going to try to write some hits and get a deal' and stuff like that, what â choice was there for somebody who realizes how phony the whole thing is but to play punk rock and only discover that it's okay to be a real songwriter using whatever means you want later on?"
Smith ended up on Moon's label just as he was hitting his musical stride and a personal rough patch. Outside of the work of Lou Reed, Smith's self-titled second album -- his first for Kill Rock Stars -- contains some of pop music's deepest, most tender explorations of drugs as a lifestyle, as a crutch and as a metaphor for love. A clear exposition of Smith's world-view at the time -- a kind of bittersweet, white-trash existentialism -- it has continued to define his public profile. On the album, Smith's voice is a soft, wounded lilt. The songs do not mince words. Titles include "Needle in the Hay," "The White Lady Loves You More" and "St. Ides Heaven." The mood is brought home by the album's cover. It's a photograph blown out into negative and positive space that pictures two figures jumping off a building. One is prone and in free fall, the other seems prepared to cannonball into the earth. Both seem to be sinking quite joyfully into the void.