As a genesis of exceptional talent this is flawless, and heartbreakingly so.
James Skinner 2010
In a 1998 interview with Magnet Magazine, Elliott Smith posited the idea that “music is worth doing just because”. Admittedly taken out of context, these words nevertheless encapsulate almost everything the late singer stood for: the solace he found in creating and recording his songs, and the joy he derived from playing them.
Given the breadth and quality of his discography, it is easy to forget that Smith’s career as a solo artist was never a premeditated one. Rather, the nine songs that comprise debut album Roman Candle were presented to a small independent label as little more than a glorified demo, and even then only due to the goading of his girlfriend at the time. Recorded on a four-track machine in his basement and likely gestated for the most part while on the road with Heatmiser, they were never expressly intended for anyone’s ears other than Smith’s own – a factor certainly borne out in their deeply personal themes.
This reissue is the result of his friend and archivist Larry Crane performing an unobtrusive remastering of those original cuts with Roger Seibel of SAE Mastering, and you can’t help but feel that any ire aimed their way by some of the hardcore Smith contingent has been sorely misguided. The creak of fingers sliding down the fretboard, the sound of bum notes and hissing reels: all these things indelibly remain. To over-contemplate its reissue on purely technical terms would be a mistake, as well as a disservice.
Smith tangibly seethes as he delivers the title-track’s central lyric, painting a picture of domestic abuse that crops up throughout the remainder. It is a vivid, brave song with which to open an album (not least a career) and like many here, it’s rendered all the more poignant by his tragic, untimely demise. But alongside this bleakness lies compassion, and its central salvo of unnamed tracks illustrates his gift for marrying the clearest, most beautiful melodies to darker subtexts.
If music is worth doing “just because”, it is worth listening to because of musicians like Elliott Smith. Which isn’t to say that Roman Candle is his best or most defining work – although uniformly strong, he would go on to write better-realised songs and fuller, more satisfying albums. But this remains a searingly honest and decisive collection. As a genesis of exceptional talent it is flawless, and heartbreakingly so.