Head to selected cinemas across the UK today (May 7) and you’re in for a treat. No, not the bloody Avengers. When Chicago filmmaker Nickolas Rossi sought crowdfunding for his Elliott Smith documentary, ‘Heaven Adores You’, he vowed to craft a visual love letter to the cult songwriter, who died tragically in 2003. Rather than retreading Elliott’s struggles with drug and alcohol addiction, alleged abuse by his stepfather, or the circumstances of his death (close friends say suicide; the coroner opened the possibility of murder), the film chronicles the Texas native’s journey from teenage prodigy to indie-rock icon with a sensitivity befitting its subject, whose most recent biography was titled ‘Torment Saint’.
Best of all, with help from Larry Crane, Smith’s friend and archivist, the movie packs an enchanting soundtrack full of lesser-known and in some cases, totally unheard tracks by the late musician. Here’s all you need to know about the newly unearthed tracks. Check out ‘Heaven Adores You’ to hear the songs, out now.
‘I Love My Room’
On this prog-pop epic, a freakishly young Elliott plays a giddy piano line while playfully serenading his bedroom. “Sometimes I’ll smoke a cigarette, but be careful so the ashes don’t collect,” he sings with boyish wonder. Although your first question is who’s buying cigs for this barely pubescent teen, you soon succumb to the song’s manic virtuosity.
Nickolas Rossi: “The first time Larry Crane [Elliott’s friend and archivist] played us that song, we thought, there’s no way this kid is 13, 14 – it’s intricate, super complex. And yet he probably really recorded that in his room, on a four-track he borrowed fromhigh school.”
After a teenage Elliott left Texas to escape his stepfather, he moved to Portland, Oregon, and slowly attracted his own cult. On a visit home he recorded this endearingly clunky piano waltz with childhood friend Steve Pickering, its muffled vocals describing “leaving the cities” to find “a cool and wispy breeze”.
NR: “When we interviewed Steve, he showed us this thumb drive, like, ‘Oh, you should hear this stuff we recorded!’ It’s amazing they had the sense to record it at 14. Lyrically, the song’s a beautiful moment – he’s got the excitement of a young boy leaving into the unknown.”
Although ‘3’ was recorded in the ’80s, it materialised in 2004 as ‘King’s Crossing’, a resplendent highlight of ‘From A Basement On The Hill’, the album Elliott left unfinished upon his death. While that take alludes to drug struggles (“It’s Christmas time and the needle’s on the tree”), this acoustic, harmonica-backed version alludes to a mysterious political assassination.
NR: “Elliott worked on certain songs for decades, recycling bits of music and lyrics. He probably came up with this in high school, worked it out in college and was performing it in the early 2000s.”
‘Don’t Call Me Billy’
This grunge-infused folk song by Elliott’s high school band, Stranger Than Fiction, became ‘Fear City’, which surfaced on 2007 rarities compilation ‘New Moon’. In the faintly comical chorus, Elliott sneers the title like an indignant kid haplessly confronting the jocks.
NR: “He’s trying out these voices in the earlier songs – sometimes it’s Elvis Costello, and on this song, he’s emulating Joe Strummer. That reflects the theme that, after screaming in [Portland band] Heatmiser, he felt like he wasn’t getting his point across, so started whispering his lyrics.”
‘Coast To Coast’
‘Coast to Coast’ became the incendiary opener of ‘…Basement’, but this mid-‘90s demo taps into the intimacy of Elliott’s earlier classics. “I’m all too patient/ Sick and ugly,” he rasps in the chorus, hinting at the studio version’s caustic self-loathing.
NR: “The instrumentation is so stripped-down, which really contrasts the fuller album version. Lyrically, you can see how he was working things out between the two versions, and you gotta wonder, is [the album version] really final, or would he have written another one?”