Because we can, and because, on the ninth anniversary of his death, the context for this article still doesn’t bear thinking about, let’s start by dividing Elliott Smith’s career into two distinct and similarly ace trilogies. The first comprises ‘Roman Candle’, ‘Elliott Smith’ and ‘Either/Or’; three difficult, solipsistic, frustrating, honest, poetic, rewarding, determinedly sad records dragged kicking and screaming from between their subject’s ears with a rusty pair of pliers and large doses of sodium pentothal. This was, incidentally, the period during which Smith’s drug-intake was manageable. The kind of guy you imagine might leave his shoes on in your house, but at least he’d wipe them on the mat. The people to whom these albums most appeal reference Dostoevsky in conversation, grow beards, drink mojitos alone and have at some point fancied a librarian.
The second trilogy, from ‘XO’ onwards, is painted in broader strokes. A rainbow that burst forth from the rapidly clearing fug. A crystallisation of Smith’s palatial ambition that, on final LP ‘From a Basement on the Hill’, crumbled majestically in terrifying and spectacular fashion. The people to whom these albums most appeal reference Dave Eggers in conversation, dislike ‘hipsters’ and have probably also fancied a librarian. However, before returning to their single beds and masturbating furiously into a controversial pop culture magazine, they did seriously consider inviting her out for coffee.
But what makes Elliott Smith great encompasses both sides of the divide. There are plentiful reasons to chain yourself to this particular altar, but you really need look little further than the man’s moral grounding. As indie rock sneered righteously behind the shadows of cynical ’80s and ’90s post-hardcore, Smith reminded that gentrified set of Albini-worshippers that screaming at society’s lesser-thans as a springboard to validate your cleverness was a dick’s move. More than just an antidote to mainstream glitz, he implicitly proved with zinging wordplay and metaphors slipped into impossible bottles that America’s snotty elite just weren’t as brainy as they imagined, namely by virtue of being more compassionate, better informed and plain better than the lot of them.
So how to tackle an oeuvre of such admirable proportions? Some told us it was impossible, trivial, decadent, juvenile, degrading, offensive, lurid and dangerous. They were, of course, dramatically wrong. So here’s my list - it’s better than yours, OK?
Wherein the record label run by the decidedly unpunky folks at DreamWorks called. Smith answered, and so began his search for “a silver lining in the corporate cloud”. ‘Figure 8’, alas, wasn’t it. It’s impossible to separate the latter end of Smith’s career from major label politics - there’s even a suggestion that the whole Dreamworks issue seriously contributed to his terminal deterioration - but the truth is, dwindling melodies and roughshod arrangements amounted to a rich, awkwardly grandiose major label breakthrough that didn’t quite stack up. At a time when Smith’s literate confessionals had kick-started an epidemic of emotional bulimia - Bright Eyes, Death Cab, you know the type - it’s fair to say the timing wasn’t perfect, either. That’s not to suggest this is a certifiable write-off, however: an LP, transitional or otherwise, featuring ‘Son of Sam’, ‘Everything Means Nothing to Me’, ‘Easy Way Out’, ‘Wouldn’t Mama Be Proud’, ‘Color Bars’ and ‘Happiness’, not to mention ‘Somebody that I Used to Know’, ‘Pretty Mary K’ and ‘Can’t Make a Sound’, is sweet music to these ears. And at the end of the day, if ‘Figure 8’ is Elliott’s worst album, it’s still one of the best worst albums around.
Without the élan or obscurity of his later work, ‘Roman Candle’ remains a shining example of the songwriter’s demonstrable talents. That its highlight, the melancholic ‘Condor Ave’, was written when Smith was in his late teens is frankly unfathomable, exploring as it does the regret, confusion and residual anger felt towards a fictional lover, who, after fleeing the house mid-argument, jumps in the car, drives away and falls asleep at the wheel, to be swiftly annihilated by a drunk-driver. Heavy stuff, then, but even given the record’s allusions to never-ending sleep, it’d be too easy to view these 8 tracks through the prism of Smith’s ultimate fate. Rather, these simple ditties represent the poetic unravelling of a tired, compassionate soul that could easily have gone one way or another.
Recorded around the bizarre success of Smith’s ‘Miss Misery’, the Good Will Hunting theme that led to an iconic Oscars performance, ‘XO’ is the last ES album to bear the stamp of Portland, Oregon. Although the bulk of it was written in Manhattan and recorded in LA, Smith’s increasingly George Harrison-esque earworms found resplendent solace in the backing of Portland’s Quasi, including his old Heatmiser bandmate, Sam Coomes. The overhaul from ‘Either/Or’ was drastic, but the story remained the same; rendered against the most sumptuously ineffable melodies of his career, the album nonetheless carries around its dead-inside worthlessness like heavy luggage. Which highlights a fundamental paradox of Smith’s career: if he IS so fucking dead inside, why is he so fucking good? Fourteen years on songs like ‘Waltzes #1 and #2’ and ‘Sweet Adeline’ sound as perfectly wrought as ever, expressing the joy of living even while describing the opposite. Grumble about the necessary sonic evolution all you like, but let’s be clear: any sucker with three albums better than this deserves every medal in the cabinet.
If ‘Either/Or’ is Smith’s most complete album, then its self-titled predecessor is his bleakest. Highlighted by the modesty-monger himself as a career turning point, it hardly surprises that the record with which he was happiest captures manic, dimly-lit misery in a flash of Kodak clarity. The record hits hardest with his career’s most coherent and chilling allusions to drug usage (‘Needle in the Hay’, ‘St. Ides Heaven’, ‘The White Lady Loves You More’) and childhood abuse (‘Christian Brothers’). Ultimately ‘Elliott Smith’ showed off its author’s observational eye - something that would come to define his next couple of albums: too knowingly detached to be misanthropic, and yet too wry to be genuinely self-loathing.
It’s a difficult listen, isn’t it? Unfairly maligned by earnest herberts convinced that there’s no place in rock‘n’roll for irrational outbursts and scruffy, stonking riffs, Smith’s posthumous offering is an album that screams degenerate despair from the bottom of its tar-damaged lungs. Tender acoustic numbers like ‘Let’s Get Lost’ and ‘The Last Hour’ host inwardly malevolent confessions. ‘Coast to Coast’ sprawls with rogue guitars that seem designed to frighten small children. Close inspection of ‘King’s Crossing’’s second verse reveals the most obscure and unexpected reference to jerking off, ever. And all shot through with the lucid resignation of a misspent life: “I can deal with some psychic pain/If it’ll slow down my higher brain... Veins full of disappearing ink/Vomiting in the kitchen sink/Disconnecting from the missing link,” grunts ‘A Fond Farewell’, before ‘King’s Crossing’ cries into the abyss, “Give me one good reason not to do it!” more as a genuine request than indignant junkie logic. The response to the latter, dubbed in months later by Jennifer Chiba, Smith’s girlfriend at the time of his death, is simple: “Because I love you”.
Like any of Smith’s records - perhaps moreso - ‘From a Basement on the Hill’ was an unnervingly candid offering. We call it ‘a difficult listen’ because we need euphemism, just like we might say that losing our closest friend to a sleuth of wild, hungry bears is ‘kinda tough’, or that, between Israel and Palestine, the possession of Jerusalem is a ‘thorny issue’. A difficult listen it may or may not be, but certainly it’s never an impossible one. The depiction of the author’s ill-fated journey is breathtaking, heartbreaking, divine and universal, all at once. An electrifying epilogue.
This is where the underground strokes its collective facial foliage, swallows inflated pride and reluctantly, you know, agrees with itself. You could nitpick, but why bother? Each Elliott Smith album possessed at least one unqualified classic. ‘Either/Or’ just happened to have a full house. No filler, no pretension, no stone unturned. With oppressive tones, ‘Between the Bars’ (think two senses of “bars”) tackles the suppressive kind of addiction that keeps a person imprisoned in his own head. Equally beguiling, ‘Alameda’ bristles with alienation, defensiveness and a redeeming sense of perception. Take the chorus: “Nobody broke your heart/You broke your own/’Cause you can’t/Finish what you start” - the ‘what you start’, in this instance, being a clingy obsession with intravenous heroin consumption.
Thing is, Smith didn’t actively hate himself - at least not in song. Instead he took his sadsack outsiderdom on the chin, like a man nodding grimly while being told that he can’t get into this club, but maybe try the bar on the docks. And all that was fine. Though the beauty his tricksy melodies exude is tempered by the pressing knowledge that it ended all too abruptly - and this is true, it’s almost impossible to unknow - at its best Smith’s is the only music that I can say, without critical hyperbole, approaches the realms of the truly life-affirming. In that respect, ‘Either/Or’ rules almighty.