A retrospective which reinforces Smith’s status as an intriguing but flawed artist.
Chris White 2010-10-27
It’s now seven years since American singer-songwriter Elliott Smith was pronounced dead in a Los Angeles hospital shortly after apparently stabbing himself twice in the heart.
Those familiar with Smith’s music were saddened but not surprised that this troubled individual chose to end things this way. Over seven albums, two released posthumously, the Nebraska native penned a stream of melodic, literate but deeply bitter and bleak songs, cataloguing his battles with alcoholism, drugs and depression with sometimes savage honesty.
Despite a brief flirtation with mainstream success after his Miss Misery was nominated for a Best Song Oscar following its appearance on the soundtrack of hit film Good Will Hunting, Smith generally eschewed commercialism and seemed more comfortable as a cult figure. As is invariably the case, his reputation has grown since his death, but this compilation only serves to reinforce his status as an intriguing but flawed artist.
Early songs like Last Call (from 1994 debut Roman Candle) set the template – Smith’s acoustic jangle, occasionally punctuated by squalls of jagged electric guitar that betray his punk roots, with murmured, portentous lyrics such as "I’m lying here waiting for sleep to take me".
Later inclusions here, for example Waltz #2 (XO) from 1998’s XO and Happiness from 2000’s Figure 8, show Smith adopting a more widescreen approach, perhaps in response to the new DreamWorks Records deal he signed after his unexpected Oscars exposure. But despite fuller instrumentation and a more upbeat sound influenced by The Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel, Smith is still as relentlessly melancholy as ever, singing of a girl "who made her life a lie so she’d never have to know anyone".
This is Smith’s biggest problem – he just never lightens up. While other arch-miserablists like Morrissey and Nick Cave are able to vary the mood of their songs with wit and wordplay, Smith remains stubbornly entrenched in a perpetual slough of despond. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem he had much to laugh about during his short, unhappy life, but over an entire record, his maudlin musings are rather hard work for all but the most introspective of listeners.