It just dawned on me that the day I’m reviewing the latest retrospective on Elliott Smith’s work is the seventh anniversary of his death. That coincidence is not lost on me. Smith’s music haunts me and has since I first heard “Needle in the Hay” as the audio bed to the tastefully graphic suicide scene in Wes Anderson’s “The Royal Tennenbaums.”
Smith’s brand of power pop … and it is power pop (one spin of “Ballad of Big Nothing” and there’s no denying how much of an influence Big Star was on the man) … owes as much to the baroque/chamber pop of the sixties as it does to the folk movement of the late fifties. The voicings and arrangements hearken back to a simpler time; when the emphasis fell more on the lyrics than the production. Yet, his contribution to this art form is a balance of form and function/lyrics and production. His songs, though occasionally dark, are enjoyable and equally comfortable being the center of a listener’s attention or as background music.
An Introduction to … Elliott Smith is the perfect primer for the uninitiated. Fourteen tracks that cover Smith’s entire career, including material released posthumously. What’s interesting is how well these tracks work together. There’s no radical shift in production quality, which you often find as an artist moves from indie label to major and as their career progresses. This is a testament to Smith’s integrity and in keeping his music pure over his brief six-year recording career.
When I heard Smith committed suicide it affected me. A lot. I was not a huge fan. I did not buy all of his releases. But, I recognized what he brought to the table and in many respects I viewed him as a voice for that generation … much more so than a Cobain or Corgan or any of the other supposed “messiahs” of the ’90s … and I can’t help but recall a favorite lyric (“What I used to be will pass away and then you’ll see that all I want now is happiness for you and me”). One could argue that his action on October 21, 2003 brought him his final happiness. But, that’s not me. I find it all to be bittersweet with a slight comfort that his music continues to endure and engage.