Elliott Smith’s best album, Either/Or, is 20 years old now, and it’s safe to assume that a whole new generation who got hip to it through Frank Ocean’s 2016 album Blond could use a primer on Smith’s music (“Seigfried” quotes Smith’s “A Fond Farewell,” and Smith is named as a contributor in the accompanying Boys Don’t Cry magazine/liner notes). But when you want to explore the music of Elliott Smith, you have to decide which road you want to head down.
After moving to Portland, Oregon from Texas in his teens to live with his psychiatrist dad, Smith formed the rock band Heatmiser in the early ‘90s before going solo with a stark acoustic approach, creating wondrous worlds in dank houses. He played acoustic guitar perhaps more elegantly than anyone else in his era, mixing it with beautifully delivered yet emotionally messy vocals. The combination worked. His music became more layered and elaborate as recording locations shifted to L.A. and London, but his songs could always be reduced to voice and guitar. His music is often calming and church-like. Occasionally, it’s angry. It has a reputation for being sad.
In some ways, Smith’s trajectory paralleled Kurt Cobain’s. They were both brilliant male feminist rockers from the Pacific Northwest. Both also abused drugs and committed suicide. And they’re both canonized today as scraggly fallen angels, which is like a cartoon version of who they really were. What’s most important is that, in both cases, the music transcends their tragic backstories. And with Smith, there’s more than enough—there are four sides to the story.
VOICE AND GUITAR
(See playlist at top right)
This is how Elliott Smith started, and it’s where you should too. Voice and guitar were his building blocks: Early Smith albums were recorded on one microphone in a basement, and when your essential skills are of such high quality, that’s all you need. His lo-fi canon consists of Elliott Smith (good), Roman Candle (great), and Either/Or (masterpiece). But Smith would return to stripped-down recordings all the way to the end, and one of his best is “Everything Reminds Me Of Her,” from 2000’s Figure 8.
About that voice: You’ll notice it sound heathery; it’s the soft side of the human voice. Listen to “Say Yes” and hear how his approach can sound vulnerable and sweet and then powerful with overdubbing—Smith was a master at tracking his own voice. On “Angeles,” hear how he uses a quiet tone but can also summon a battered toughness. Smith was also a great actor.
About that guitar: He played rhythm well but was especially skilled at coming up with lead lines, figures he would repeat throughout a song. Notice how the intro on “No Name #1” foreshadows the verse in a folksy way. This is Smith, the guitarist, showing off his great songwriting skills. On “Everything Reminds Me Of Her,” the opening figure is delicately bent, something to stare at. This is Smith, the guitarist, as an ornamental player, who is great at adding curlicues and embellishments.
EXPLORING THE SPACE
“Miss Misery” (on our first playlist) was nominated for an Oscar, which Smith lost to Celine Dion. Smith signed to a major label and his music opened up, incorporating many more instruments. He always played drums, bass, piano, and guitar—often, he was the only player on his albums—and the full range of his skills can be heard on 1998’s XO.
“Baby Britain” recasted Smith as a solid piano man with a certain barroom jauntiness, while “Bled White” introduced a new, fuller sound, with multiple guitars and keyboards. He indulges in his George Martin and Brian Wilson fantasies with the wall of vocals in “I Didn’t Understand,” one of his prettiest recordings.
By 2000, Smith was living in L.A., doing drugs irresponsibly and eating ice cream for every meal. On Figure 8, the music is lovely and less heartbreaking than before, but the songs seem more like formal exercises with wild instrumentation and arrangements than statements from the gut. The harpsichord on “Junk Bond Trader” and the cinematic plod of “Happiness/The Gondola Man” suggest that Smith would make a great film scorer, as does “Everything Means Nothing To Me,” which thrillingly descends into a blown-out drum loop. Smith emulates Brian Wilson here, mental instability and all.
After he took his own life in 2003, we got the unfinished From a Basement on a Hill, which shows that the experimentation on Figure 8 was only the beginning. He was plotting his Pet Sounds, and it’s just as messy and smart as his finest work, but also kind of… not. We don’t need “Ostrich & Chirping,” but we do need “A Fond Farewell”—proof that Smith could still turn out an “Elliott Smith song” no matter what. We also got New Moon, a polar opposite kind of recording, lo-fi, humble, and intermittently excellent, particularly “Whatever (Folk Song In C).”
After he died, we learned that Smith was prone to vacillating between these two modes: bare and lush. And we learned that his music went through a lot of iterations before he felt like he nailed it. In retrospect, he did.