Elliott Smith was like a big pretty butterfly. Well, as pretty as a butterfly can get with such a large, creepy face. In his early rock band Heatmiser, he was a squirmy caterpillar, shuffling around the grunge scene in a loud mess. In Heatmiser's later days, he began going into his cocoon with the recordings of his debut album Roman Candle
, whose raw, yet reserved acoustic sound didn't fit in with his band. And finally, his self-titled sophomore album showed Smith emerging out of the cocoon. As his career progressed from there (and as Heatmiser subsequently started falling apart), the instrumentation and experimentation grew, but the backbone of every Elliott Smith song is in Elliott Smith
Smith's music is elusive and recondite in various ways. There's not a single thing that’s immediately noticed at first with his music, yet it's all absorbed. Elliott slyly enhances this with the album's simply constructed opener, Needle in the Hay
. Being built around 4 simple 5th (power) chords, and a simple chorus that is the title, Elliott Smith
begins in an inconspicuous manner. As the album progresses, though, it becomes noticed that the songs shift through subtle, curveball shifts. As a result, the idea of a pacific album reigned by a sole acoustic guitar being simply a pleasant, forgettable listen is shed (start taking notes, James Blunt
). Elliott Smith's ways with unique, yet memorable melodies is highlighted starkly as his lonesome playing confidently leads the way.
Knowing how unreliable I am, I stretched the truth a bit, as a couple of the songs are accompanied by other instruments, but the guitar remains the lead trooper. Dylanesque harmonica intros join two of the most melodically accessible songs, Coming Up Roses
and Alphabet Town
. But the Mississippi Saxes don't intrude, they creep along with the song naturally, as if Smith ignored them and continued the songs normally. The same goes for Single File
that has a flimsy guitar riff that dances around the chorus, but Smith's fierce vocal delivery commands the attention of the listener.
Smith's lyrics are what hit hardest when noticed. A friend of mine who never pays attention to lyrics said Smith sounds like an innocent boy with a guitar. Wrong! Elliott Smith will fu
ck you up! Well, not really, but the harsh honesty of drug use (not actually his, he didn't develop an addiction until years later) interweaved with the serene compositions is astonishing. St. Ide's Heaven
is a perfect example of his mix between ethereal poetry and candid experience with drugs, beginning with the comical opening: "everything here is exactly right/when I walk around here drunk every night" then the chorus: "high on amphetamines/the moon is a light bulb breaking/it'll go around with anyone/but it won't come down for anyone". The music literally translates this, the verse containing aggressive stop-start playing and transitioning into an airy ride. The drug themes sometime don’t even relate to drugs, but rather surreal metaphors.
So all the drug talk would make one imagine Elliott Smith having a gruff, hardass
voice, with some ridiculous New Jersey accent. But his voice is as soft the guitar itself, mostly reverting itself to a shy whisper with a delicate rasp. Yet out of this voice, comes out foul-mouthed confrontational lines like "no bad dream fu
cker’s gonna boss me around/Christian brothers gonna take him down". Opposites really do attract on Elliott Smith
. The climax of Southern Belle
features Smith bursting out with a raised voice, but still keeps its reserved shakiness. His signature double tracked voice and Beach Boys
tinged harmonies surround the listener and make an intimate, somewhat ominous mood.
Clocking in at 37 minutes, every second of Elliott Smith
counts to introduce Smith as one of the 90s most gifted for pop music. Every song has an enthralling melody, and a thought provoking story. The eponymous record demands repeated listens, each time drawing the listener deeper and deeper into the grizzly indie star's mind. As he expanded his George Harrison
and Beach Boys influence with a more ample budget on later albums, everything one needs to know him is on this album.