Scratched Into Our Souls

Remembering Elliott Smith | August 7, 2010

I’m a day late in posting this, but it is absolutely necessary. Happy Birthday, Elliott. We miss you. 

Steven Paul “Elliott” Smith was a singer-songwriter born in Omaha, Nebraska, on August 6th 1969. He passed away tragically October 21st, 2003, apparently by suicide (though some conspiracy theorists refuse to believe it). Primarily a proficient guitarist in the vein and style of Nick Drake, Elliott Smith was also a talented piano player, clarinetist, bassist, drummer, and harmonica player. His most powerful instrument, however, was that voice. Once you hear it, you’ll never forget it. Like a gentle whisper, Smith’s gorgeous voice was pure and fragile, with a vocal delivery that has been described as spiderweb-thin. He often overdubbed his vocals on his tracks to create brilliant vocal harmonies which suited his voice and intuitively strong melodic style. As a songwriter, Smith’s songs will break your heart almost every time you hear them. He will not be quickly forgotten, and his back-catalogue is rich and vast for anybody who wishes to find their new favorite artist. Below is a quick retrospective of Elliott Smith’s discography as a solo singer-songwriter (he was a part of rock band Heatmiser before going solo). 

Roman Candle (1994)

Elliott’s first solo album was never intended for full release. Thinking he was only going to get a deal for a 7 inch release, this 30 minute slice of brilliance was immediately snatched up by Cavity Search Records upon hearing it, despite Smith’s initial reluctance. The lo-fi sound gives Smith’s voice a haunting atmosphere, as he recorded the songs entirely on a four-track recorder in his girlfriend’s basement.

7/10

Listen: Elliott Smith – “No Name #2”

Elliott Smith (1995)

Smith’s second full-length release as a solo artist was his first flash of brilliance. Stark and entirely acoustic, the album is one of the best singer-songwriter albums of the 90s, including classic songs like “Needle in the Hay” and “Christian Brother.” His intricate guitar picking never sounded as raw as it did here, but his songwriting skills were only going to improve (if you can believe it).

8/10

Listen: Elliott Smith – “Needle in the Hay”

Either/Or (1997)

This is Elliott Smith’s undeniable masterpiece and the single best place for new fans to start. Not only did Smith start writing the best lyrics of his career on this album, but he cleaned up the sound just enough to let his voice and guitar shine through magnificently. When it comes to Elliott Smith, this album reveals treasures on the first listen and even the fiftieth. If you’ve never heard this stone-cold classic, do yourself a huge favor and get a copy, then put it on on a rainy day or in the dead silence of night.

10/10

Listen: Elliott Smith – “Between The Bars”

XO (1999)

Compositionally speaking, this album is one of Smith’s most complex. The vocal melodies are less immediate than those on its predecessor, and the thing just feels a whole lot more textured than anything he had ever put his name on before. But, there’s no denying the instantly classic feel of songs like “Sweet Adeline” and “Waltz #2.” The songs include more instruments than previously had been featured on any Elliott Smith album, but to great results.

9/10

Listen: Elliott Smith – “Sweet Adeline”

Figure 8 (2000)

Elliott Smith was the first singer to emulate The Beatles sense of melody almost perfectly in his songs, and nowhere did he show off that skill more than with this album, which might as well be Smith’s Abbey Road. There are more memorable tunes here than on probably any of his albums, like the fantastic kiss-off “Somebody That I Used To Know” and the heartbreaking “Easy Way Out.” 

9/10

Listen: Elliott Smith – “Somebody That I Used to Know”

From A Basement On The Hill (2004)

Elliott Smith left behind an incomplete album when he passed away, and his family hired his former producer Rob Shnapf and ex-girlfriend Joanna Bolme to gather tracks together and put the finishing touches on the songs. It’s not as bright as its predecessor, but these 15 tracks represent an incredible collection of songs that showed Elliott Smith wasn’t even close to losing his momentum. The final result, as Smith sings on one of the album’s highlights, is a fond farewell to a friend.

10/10

Listen: Elliott Smith – “Coast To Coast”

New Moon (2007)

Digging into the archives of unreleased tunes by Elliott Smith, nobody could have imagined that a double-album of gems could have been the result. Most artists have b-sides that are for completists only; Elliott Smith’s b-sides would represent a career highlight for most artists. We can only hope that there are more archives of unreleased material as good as songs like “Either/Or” and the magnificent cover of Big Star’s “Thirteen.”

9/10

Listen: Elliott Smith – “Either/Or”

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2 Comments »

  1. Definitely a great artist, from what I’ve heard. I only have “Miss Misery” in my iTunes library, I’ll admit, but it’s in my Top 25. Right after I got that song I heard he was dead and that was definitely a bummer, he was a brilliant guy and the emotion that glared through his work was very touching.

    Comment by JokiLoki22 — August 7, 2010 @ 6:38 pm

  2. not gonna lie, XO > Either/Or.

    Nice write-up anyway, though.

    Comment by Kyle (chamberk) — September 17, 2010 @ 6:27 pm


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    About Me: Chris Robinson

    A budding writer and avid music fan from Los Angeles, California, I am a recent graduate of Music History from UCLA's Herb Alpert School of Music. I've written for the UCLA Daily Bruin, graduated valedictorian from high school, and enjoy many different types of music, from The Beatles to Beethoven, and everything in between. I wrote my senior thesis on lyrical misinterpretations in popular music, focusing on Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA."

    Add me on last.fm: http://www.last.fm/user/crob3888

    All music posted on this blog is for sampling purposes only. If you like what you hear, support the artists. Go out and buy their music, attend their shows, and buy merchandise.

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