All things considered, I think my favorite song from Roman Candle
is “No Name #4” because she finally leaves. We all know Elliott was often best when he (or his character; it’s no secret that the subjects in his songs were often veiled self-portraits) was sad, but even so the track is a thrilling moment of liberation--a painful relationship put on hold simply by the protagonist’s new-found ability to just pick up her shit
and leave. She gets scared and comes back, but at least she now knows she can do it. She might even try talking to someone about it. Other than “No Name #4”, though, Smith’s characters seem stuck, an impression given off by both his lyrics and music--which makes these fleeting moments of freedom even more indelible. Take, for example, the title track: supplied with a disarmingly forthright refrain of “I want to hurt him / I want to give him pain,” the track lets us peek into a mind stuck with dark thoughts not only by repeating this assertion over and over but also dipping into murky dissonance as soon as the narrator lets us know “[he wants to] make him feel this pretty burn”. For those listeners who have been led by example by “No Name #4”, we want nothing more than for the guy to just take a walk outside and give it a good think.
All of the characters on Roman Candle
are, indeed, Roman Candles themselves, with heads full of flames, just waiting to burst. As we all probably know by now, Smith’s ability to sympathize with or even embody these troubled characters was ultimately because he was one of them, a sad fact that would eventually explain the ending to his story, one even darker than any of the tracks here. However, back before this presented any real danger, it simply meant that Smith was one of the most intelligent and compassionate songwriters out there--a title he fully earned with Roman Candle
. No matter what trials and tribulations each character is going through underneath, each song is strongly melodic and assisted by the comforting presence of Elliott’s whispery vocals and bare guitar playing. Though always simplistic, the songs here have their surprises: “No Name #2” features an upbeat, harmonica-assisted (nearly as instrumentally elaborate as the album gets) chorus which chillingly segues into a more emotionally ambivalent verse with the characteristic attention to detail Smith applies to every song of his--though, on first listen, it seems so casually tossed off that it may take a few listens to realize the genius. “Last Call” also expands Smith’s instrumental palette; in a constant build towards a devastating climax (“I wanted her to tell me that she would never wake me”), Smith finally just lets it rip on his electric guitar: the flames inside his head have finally burst. Instrumental closer “Kiwi Maddog 20/20”, though still excellent, is simply a comedown.
Though all songs are of interest, one other particularly catches my attention: “Drive All Over Town”. Coming right before the brief salvation of “No Name #4”, it’s about the abusive boyfriend spending his whole night trying to find her--a sort of “She’s Leaving Home” told from both sides of the story. Though the vaguely harsh imagery of “and he’ll drive all over town / until he tracks her down” may suggest that he’s searching because he’s blindly angry, it’s a testament to Smith’s power that, inside, we really, really wish that it’s because he loves her.