Review Summary: Roman Candle may seem wispy, but closer examination unveils an outstanding songwriter who does not sugarcoat his expressive ideas.
I've been listening to Elliott Smith for some time now, and I've come to one conclusion: the man really is one-of-a-kind. Smith had some uncanny gift, an ability to create some of the most heartrending and bittersweet music with just the bare essentials. Many singer-songwriters today have tried to emulate Elliott Smith's modus operandi, but nobody does Elliott Smith quite like the man himself. Materializing in 1994, Roman Candle was Elliott's first release, his first self-effacing attempt to express himself.
One thing that makes his delivery so unique is his voice. While it sounds like he is singing more with his throat than with his stomach, Elliott's unassertive vocals fit perfectly with the album's ingrained dryness. The majority of Roman Candle is very skeletal. On the opening line of the album, "He played himself." Smith establishes the LP's solitary and "bare-bones" aesthetic. Primitive production, limited instrumentation, and plenty of jarring guitar squeaks have never felt so imperative. Utilizing his minimal tool set, Smith brings forth the sheer candidness of a young man that carries the weight of the world.
Despite its relative brevity, Roman Candle allows the listener to get to know Elliott on many different levels. Some take the liberty of labeling his music as "depressing", but Roman Candle is much more complex than that. For instance, there are moments of pain, like on the title track, and moments in which his round personality comes to light, like on "No Name #1", where Elliott's fragile psyche breaks free and sings, "You don't belong here." The idea of not fitting in is a recurring theme on Roman Candle, and Smith takes hold of his isolation and allows it to reflect onto his songwriting. However, he sings with a certain degree of aplomb that disguises feelings of pessimism and trepidation.
Many of Smith's lyrics strike the ears with their unfettered substance, like on "No Name #3", where he observes, but does not criticize, the fact that many people spend their days dawdling. With lyrics like "Everyone is gone...home to oblivion.", "Watched the dying day.", and "Come on, night.", he identifies with those who would prefer not to think about what is going on around them. Track like "No Name #4" will not overwhelm the listener with volume, but will certainly caress the ears with sensitivity. Furthermore, Roman Candle contains plenty of Elliott's shining moments. "Condor Ave." is an easy example, in which he strokes his acoustic guitar with a pleasant melody that merges so beautifully with his memories of a fading relationship.
Every song on Roman Candle shows that Elliott has an abundance of stories to tell. Some are unfathomable; others are ridiculously poignant. Much of the record embraces a stripped-down, unembellished style, making the songs feel uniform. That is, of course, until the last two tracks blindside the listener with their utter scale. "Last Call" and the instrumental "Kiwi Maddog 20/20" are the album's outliers, but in a good way. Within the first few seconds of "Last Call" it seems as if it will be a fairly mellow track with no surprises, yet the song suddenly blossoms into a more polished one with an elegant layer of electric guitar. In comparison to the naked sound of all the preceding tracks, the song provides a welcome change of pace and a glimpse into Smith's future sound. Then. the final track serves as the perfect cool-down with sprawling guitars that allow the listener to mull over the pungent messages and ideas Smith has presented. The listener is swept away one last time by its mesmerizing breadth but is also endowed with a sense of resolution.
Roman Candle gets better with every listen, as Smith's acute way of thinking becomes self-evident. The sound quality is usually grimy at best, but, then again, this is an album recorded on a four-track recorder in a quiet basement. It's hard to find fault with the album's sound, especially when the record's true character indeed rests in the overall sound. It's important to appreciate the album for what it is. In just a half hour, Elliott Smith has the ability to change the way you look at music and to even change your life. Once I heard Roman Candle, I knew this guy was something special.
Kiwi Maddog 20/20
No Name #4