Celebrating Elliott Smith: his five most significant tracks
Elliott Smith was a misfit’s misfit.
The aftermath of the punk tradition brought with it a new wave of new order youths, and just as punk condemned anything that had come before it, so too did indie-rock. The 90s marked an anti-singer songwriter movement where even using your own name as your alias would cue sniggers from the musical elite. Smith broke down these misconceptions.
On what would be his 46th birthday, we’ve taken the opportunity to run you through the essential tracks which marked one of contemporary music’s most tragic and cherished figures.
Roman Candle from Roman Candle (1994)
Somewhere between the tart creak of fingers along the neck of a guitar and the crackles of a low quality microphone lies the understated beauty of Smith’s composition. “I want to hurt him / I want to give him pain / I’m a Roman candle / my head is full of flames” rings coolly against a veneer of intricate guitar picking. Roman Candle was recorded on a 4-track machine in Smith’s basement and the rawness is apparent.
“I want to give him pain / And make him feel this pretty burn” rings threadbare against a plush pluck of strings. The balance between the lightness of the guitar and its darker subtext gives the song a quality that was unlike anything else being done at the time of its creation.
Needle in the Hay from Needle in the Hay (1995)
Ridden in allegory, Needle in the Hay is an uncomfortable depiction of drug addiction and abuse. Smith’s voice is a scathing whisper, gawkily thin against the imposing strum of his guitar. His tone is restless and uncomfortable: “I can’t be myself / And I don’t want to talk / I’m taking the cure / So I can be quiet whenever I want” – an inauthentic depiction of the ennui of life, saved just about by a shushing bottle. An unfortunate foreshadowing of future events, Needle in the Hay is Smith at his most frank and minimal.
Angeles from Either/Or (1997)
“Picking up the ticket shows, there’s money to be made” begins Smith’s vocals, his voice calling heavily through a brambled wall of guitar. Some critics believe that Angeles is a depiction of the Faustian bargain taken by musicians when moving from independent to major record labels. Indeed, it was Good Will Hunting that propelled Smith into Hollywood, facilitating the leap from indie label Kill Rock Stars to Dreamworks.
The piece is quintessential of Smith’s style: textured vocals and looped organ give the song an honest quality, while intricate fills weave through the groundwork of the composition. Angeles is the desperate call of a forgotten man in an ill-fitting suit who accidentally stumbled upon Hollywood’s spangled stage.
Waltz#2 from XO (1998)
Smith is a maven when it comes to layering emotion, and Waltz 2 is a case in point. The whole song is laced with metaphorical mentions of ‘Kathy’s clown’, an allusion to Smith’s mother and abusive stepfather, and his internal conflict is apparent. “She shows no emotion at all / stares into space like a dead china doll / I’m never gonna know you now but I’m gonna love you anyhow”, Smith’s voice feels laboured, as if to suppress an underlying anger that comes to its crescendo in the honest cry: “I’m tired”. The lurching waltz that underpins the whole track stomps relentlessly through the uncomfortable intimacy of the narrative, alienating the listener with its mawkish optimism and inauthenticity.
Pretty (Ugly Before) from From a Basement on a Hill (2003)
This track tugs at your heart, rips off its saccharine shield and thrusts it nakedly onto a bare stage. Even at his most semantically positive, Smith’s tone and composition still retains a feeling of yanking discomfort that leaves you over-exposed and bare. Stylistically, the song remains true to its no-frills trajectory but technically, it is more matted and refined. A vital snapshot of the disillusion and creative confusion which marked Smith’s post-Dreamworks output. The beginning of the end.