Elliott Smith | Elliott Smith Expanded 25th Anniversary Edition | (Kill Rock Stars)
Four out of five stars
Elliott’s Smith’s eponymous sophomore set created the standard for all that was to follow. Hailing from Portland’ Oregon, Smith was a forlorn singer/songwriter, an artist whose somber musings and downcast disposition found no divide between his innate artistic designs and his own introspective persona. Sadly, that plaintive perspective was more than a mere guise; his all-too brief career came to an abrupt conclusion when on October 21, 2004, at age 34, he was found dead of stab wounds. It was never determined whether they were self-inflicted or if he was the victim of a homicide. It remains an open case today.
Still, despite his struggles with depression, drink and drugs, Smith was hugely influential, comparable in many ways to another tragic artist who left the planet much too soon, Nick Drake. In the heady Northeast music scene of the early ‘90s, Smith was seen as a singular artist whose darker designs easily connected with the melancholy mindset that was so prevalent at the time.
Consequently, when Elliott Smith was released on July 21, 1995, it was hailed by some as legitimate masterpiece, an album that bore the trademark tones of a young man searching for his way in the world and allowing others to share the signposts he encountered during his journey. Given its minimal accompaniment, it was a decidedly low-cast affair, one that offered its share of memorable melodies surveyed from both a dream-like and sometimes dire point of view. Smith’s preoccupation with drugs is easily discernible — “The White Lady Loves You More” being but one example — but so is his fascination with archival folk tradition. One of the songs, “Clementine,” is actually a reimagined version of the classic standard “Oh My Darling Clementine.” Another track, “Christian Brothers,” also existed in a previous incarnation, having been previously performed with his early outfit Heatmiser.
Alternately somber and sublime, sparse yet wistful, the dozen songs bring those Nick Drake comparisons front and center. And like Drake, Smith purveys a decidedly fragile persona that still boasts a clear confidence regardless. At times, the muted approach seems to wander array — the droning “Southern Belle” is one particular example — but mostly Smith manages to keep a cohesive stance even despite the spare settings.
Aside from a booklet of photos and description, and the superb remastering, it’s the bonus disc, a set of songs recorded live in what’s believed to be one of his earliest known public performances, that will likely be of greatest interest to fans and followers. It’s an intimate setting to be sure; as judged from the mild applause, very few people were in attendance. Even so, Smith maintains his earnest intents, even offering some light-hearted patter between songs. Likewise, several songs offer hints of what’s to come — “Some Song” and “Half Right” in particular. (“Help me kill my time because I’ll never be fine,” he wails on the former.) These embracing melodies clearly indicate that even despite the stark set-up and the rudimentary recording, Smith was clearly capable of delivering songs that resonated with clarity and conviction.