A Beginner’s Guide To…Elliott Smith
Bill Williams talks us through the reasons you should fall in love with Elliott Smith this week
Who is he?
‘‘Who is this!?’’ Asked my house mate passing by my room on a particularly slow day. ‘‘It sounds really sweet’’ she exclaimed. An honest and understandable first impression but the further you delve into Elliott Smith, the less sweet he becomes - heart breaking, melancholic and honest – most definitely. A decaying flower trying to blossom in the darkened room of a smack head who cooked up the last of his stash hours ago – not so sweet now, right?
Born in Nebraska and raised in Texas and then Oregon, Elliott Smith first made his name as a singer/guitarist in the alternative pop rock shenanigans of ‘Heatmiser’ before launching a solo career that would garner him huge amounts of critical success. Before his death, Smith released 5 stunning records, all amassing critical acclaim including an Oscar nomination for the delightful, yet simple ‘Miss Misery.’ Elliott Smith died at the hospital on October 21st 2003; he was found standing with a knife in his chest by girlfriend Jennifer Chiba. His death was never recorded as a suicide. With question marks surrounding his death it is widely agreed that he has been immortalised in Rock N Roll history, but in the cold light of day it is a tragic waste of talent and life.
Why Should You Love Him?
Why should I pick this singer-songwriter over the millions of others I chose to ignore? Singer-songwriter does not do Elliott Smith justice. The man was a multi-instrumentalist, a melodist, a musical martyr! His words are poetry and from one album to the next he took more and more care of his melodies and words. Breaking through with just an acoustic guitar and borrowed 4-tracks (in a time where grunge was king) is enough on its own to demonstrate the strength of Smith’s work.
The slight harmonies and layers on the vocals post ‘Roman Candle’ combined with a terrific ear for a chord change and transition, with enough variations in timing to keep the ears perked up make Elliott Smith a little better than the standard You’re Beautiful by some James Blunt. But the subtlety of the records endears him to a higher plateau than so called ‘‘peers.’’ To a casual listener differences can be picked up upon but it’s not until you attempt to play along with the record, that you discover the depth and complexities in the music, they’re merely disguised by the easiness on the ear.
What Is His Best Album?
An argument could be raised for any of his albums to be considered his best works. But for a first time listener ‘XO’ could be considered the ideal starting point. Vocally it is arguably his strongest performance, but it also sees use of more instrumentation, it doesn’t avoid earlier works and it is certainly not a bloated sound; instead bring more warmth to the sound and enhancing the evocativeness of the lyrics. ‘Tomorrow Tomorrow’ is a prime example of this, standard acoustic guitar picking softly but not sitting so far behind the mix and well backed up with several layers of vocals. 'Waltz #2' is also a classic – the perfect Elliott Smith song – with excellent transitions, given drive with a simple drum beat (not always an Elliot Smith necessity), but also softened with a piano melody and organ so that when it drops for the chorus leaving just vocals and guitar the message is more prominent. ‘‘I’m never gona know you now/but I’m gona love you anyhow.’’ A song written about the change in his mother after poor treatment by his Stepfather.
Our Five Favourite Songs
Ballad Of Big Nothing
Son Of Sam
Pretty (Ugly Before)