Elliot Smit’s death was about as shocking as when the “gangsta” lyrics of Biggie and Tupac literally blew up in their faces. It was unfortunate but seemingly inevitable. Listening to any of the albums in the singer-songwrite’s catalog will reveal tracks entailing battles with addiction, messy breakups, and empty suburban meandering. That Smith stabbed himself in the heart is but an exclamation point that confirms how miserable he probably was. A lifelong fan of the Beatles, Big Star, and the Beach Boys, among other classic bands, Elliot was influenced by the psychedelic music of his childhood, but also plagued by a lifestyle of rock n’ roll excess, the likes of which has been chronicled many a time on VH-1.
It’s been a year since that incident, and though you may not need me to tell you this, yes he’s still dead. So then, as you may ask yourself reading this (and as I asked myself writing it) what’s the point of even mentioning it in the first place? It’s not to simply confirm his consistent state of death, that’s for sure. Rather, I’d like to focus on what matters: His music. It seems inevitable, that much like other great minds that took their own lives such as Sylvia Plath and Ernest Hemmingway, Smit’s demise may begin to overshadow what was a brilliant career.
Smith dabbled in several bands, most notably Heatmiser, before emerging as a solo artist. His first two albums, Roman Candle and his self titled album were released while he was still with the Portland based band that also featured Sam Coomes and Neil Gust. Roman Candle, while one of Smit’s lesser efforts, is still a strong enough debut that gave a glimpse of what was to come, and was in stark contrast to the edgier rock music of Heatmiser. Containing only nine songs, one of them being an instrumental, it feels more like an E.P. than a proper release.
The self titled album on the other hand is a fine collection of acoustic driven songs that display the full talents of Smith as a songwriter and as a musician. Fast songs like the dazzling “Single File” mix well with slower ballads like “Alphabet Town”.
Either/Or came next, at around the same time as Heatmise’s final (and easily best) album, Mic City Sons. A good balance of the simple songs of the Smith that was combined with more experimental songs of the Smith that was still yet to be, several of the songs from Either/Or would go on to be a part of the Good Will Hunting Soundtrack. The soundtrack would bring about Elliot’s biggest moment in the spotlight, an Oscar nomination for the song “Miss Misery”. Elliot Smith, in one of music’s more surreal moments appeared on the 1998 Oscar stage to perform the song, sandwiched in between Trisha Yearwood and Celine Dion, to whom he would lose the award to.
One of the songs on the soundtrack, Pitseleh” would be included on his next album XO. XO is a masterpiece and showcased Smith as a talented producer with a propensity to take risks that paid off, like on the closing track, I Didn’t Understand, an accapella song in which Smith is backed only by a haunting chorus of his own voice. The standout track though is Bled White, a flawless track of pure musical genius.
The next album, which would be the last one released in his album was Figure 8, which pushed Smit’s musical experimenting even further. The best songs on the album happen to be the most straightforward and simplistic, like “I Better Be Quiet Now” and “Somebody That I Used To Know”. All Smith ever needed to make a lasting song was his mind, his voice and his guitar.
This rule rings true on his last album, the just released From the Basement On the Hill, a collection of songs that was posthumously touched up by his friends and family. While some of the songs are good, overall the album is a disappointment and should be seen as more of a collection of B-sides than an actual release. Still, knowing that it may be the last time that new music from Smith is ever released does warrant it the attention it’s been given.
So in tribute of this great departed artist, give him a proper tribute by listening to some of his music. Pop in one of his CD’s or download one if you must. I’m sure he won’t mind. If you’re familiar with his work discover it again for the first time, and if not, welcome to the wonderful world that was the music of Elliot Smith and enjoy your stay.