MAINSTREAM SUCCESS BECKONS FOR Elliott Smith in the wake of his Oscar-nominated [I]Good Will Hunting [/I]soundtrack. He’s just signed a contract with Dreamworks and the recently released third album ‘Either/Or’ has received across-the-board plaudits.
So where did he come from, this lo-fi poet of the disturbed and benighted, this laureate of lovelorn losers and marginal casualties? These first two solo albums show just how Smith’s eerily seductive and slightly malevolent style was fastidiously nurtured. They also underline the unexpected and unlikely nature of his burgeoning popularity.
Beating a hasty retreat from the Fugazi-influenced attack of his band Heatmiser, Smith emerged on his 1994 debut solo album, ‘Roman Candle’ as a bruised and battered soul, with a hint of flashing steel at the core. For sure the influences previously remarked on – James Taylor, Simon & Garfunkel – can be heard in the shape of a few borrowed chords and a lot of breathy, dreamy soundscapes. But there’s more chance of Paul Simon recording an album of gabba instrumentals than there is of Elliott walking down 52nd Street feelin’ groovy.
[I]”I want to hurt him/I want to give him pain”[/I] announces the opening track, while elsewhere he documents the sad lot of those who seek terminal escape (‘Condor Avenue’) or simply [I]”go home to oblivion”[/I] (‘Drive All Over Town’). The tentative nature of the songs is signalled by the fact that four are untitled while ‘Last Call’ highlights the worst aspect of singer-songwriter fecklessness – fake piety and finger pointing – qualities that even the uncharacteristically torrid guitar can’t disguise. 6/10
But the second, eponymous album, inspired by a destructive and addictive relationship, focuses the attributes explored on the debut to quite remarkable ends. The sound is akin to a polluted breeze causing a slow, steady rustling in the leaves. A few splashes of harmony, harmonica and gentle trap-drums, but in general it’s Elliott stripped to the bone, devising a sweet backdrop for his harsh and bitter insights.
Once lured it’s hard to stay immune to the chill of loss or losing that runs through songs as specific as ‘Needle In The Hay’, as pale and pining as ‘Southern Belle’, or tortured as ‘St Ides Heaven’ where he offers the memorable entreaty, [I]”You see me smiling/But it’s just a frown/Turned upside down”[/I].
And there you have it, how to become a cult artist in two easy strokes. Who’s to say that Elliott’s pre-[I]Good Will [/I]following wasn’t, at least in part, thanks to thousands of sad sack rejects from the smacker/slacker generation hungry for an aural balm for their battle-scarred eggshell sensitivities? But credit to ol’ El for creating a deft, haunting sound all of his own. What he does with it now, with the wider world listening, could be the real challenge.