Elliott Smith: Expanded 25th Anniversary Edition
Kill Rock Stars
I was thrilled to learn about this special 25th anniversary reissue. I’m a big Elliott Smith fan and mourned heavily as thousands of fans undoubtedly did when he died way too early in 2003. I remember going to the NYC Tompkins Square Park vigil and memorial and the shrine against a tree that was set up by fans, an area of the East Village he frequented when he lived there. It was really a sadly heartfelt and unforgettable moment. I actually got the only tattoo I have, uniquely designed by myself with reference to his songs in the design, as a tribute to him. When my daughter was really little, I listened to him a lot, and her father would say, “Mommy is listening to her musician”, and my daughter would repeat it as “mommy’s magician” which was really cute.
I have a hard time putting into words how great this record is. My soul is filled with peace and bliss upon hearing it again in full. It really must be listened to in its entirety. Every song is a superb gem to be cradled and held. Elliot Smith was such an incredibly gifted songwriter and an amazingly talented musician. The songs are so wonderfully complex. It’s beautifully melodic and harmonious and intricately layered. His acoustic guitar playing, the powerful way he combines the intense rhythmic strumming and the melodic and fanciful labyrinth finger picking is astounding. He sings with unassuming fragility, in a throaty, whispery and crackly way that is so luscious and soothing, accentuating certain parts in each of the songs emphatically with these qualities. He blends plain straightforward phrases with metaphors and imagery, bittersweetly focusing on lots of dark subject matter, self-destructive behavior, negative self-image, drug abuse, unfulfillment, life’s struggles, troubled relationships, but expressing himself so romantically in the process. He had a rough childhood and struggled, he was shy, awkward, and out of place at times, but was a moral and kind person. Whatever harsh meanings behind the songs, these for me are secondary to the unbelievable brilliance of the music itself and the poetry in them. Even here in Elliott Smith’s most stripped-down form he was able to bring a fullness and multiple layer quality to his songs yet keeping a real rawness and charming beauty to everything. I just love singing along to every song on here.
For fans and newcomers alike, this 25th anniversary edition is going to excite and delight, bringing fresh life to these earlier cherished and beloved songs, with a bigger, brighter and shiner sound. Elliott’s voice and acoustic guitar playing in particular are so crisp and clear. Coming in different packages which scale up quite significantly in price, I’ve ordered the basic colored double LP that comes with the 52-page book of hand-written lyrics and photos never before shared. Included is a recording of of Elliott’s first live performance on Sept 17, 1994 at Umbra Penumbra, in Portland OR, a very fitting choice. Other sets come with exclusive 8 ½ or 11×14 photos.
This 1995 self-titled 2nd solo record by Elliott Smith was recorded in his home in Portland, OR. I’ve never been to Portland, but I hear it’s a very gray city, with lots of rainfall, like much of the Pacific Northwest, and I think you can hear that quality in this record. Smith has said before in interviews that during this time period he was keeping to himself, and that feeling of isolation also comes across quite strongly. Many sources who were close to him, and Smith himself, said that the references to substance abuse were just metaphors for things like relationships and getting through life, as written in the posthumous biography by Benjamin Nugent, Elliott Smith and the Big Nothing.
From ESmith’s own words in Spongey Monkey zine, “Sometimes people are like, ‘Oh the second one is all about drugs and stuff,’ and it’s not about drugs. It’s a different angle or topical way of talking about things. Like dependency and mixed feelings about your attachment. It’s good for you on the one hand, and on the other hand it’s not really what you need.”
The first song on the album, ‘Needle in the Hay,’ as Nugent says, could be just as much a metaphor for the painful places in Smith’s psyche as a metaphor for heroin, “…a needle in a haystack is a sharp object concealed from sight that irritates from within…The song is perhaps less concerned with the experience of being a junkie than with Smith’s latent potential for self-destruction, his buried unwanted impulses.”
‘Needle in the Hay’ is actually the first Elliott Smith song I ever heard. I was introduced to it in the Wes Anderson film, The Royal Tenenbaums, in the scene where Ritchie attempts suicide in front of a bathroom mirror while shaving his signature beard. He’s broken up with the love for his adopted sister, Margot. A really poignant harsh scene in the film and the song just really fits this dark moment and it had a huge effect on me that I went out right away and bought Elliott Smith’s first three albums.
The continuous melodic strumming in the song is raw and poignant, accompanied with his throaty raspy singing. It’s simple yet offers so much. There’s a wealth of feeling and emotion in the way he sings, and the chorus is softly sung and sweet. I love his hisssss on “You ought a be proud that I’m getting good markssssssss”.
‘Christian Brothers’ is delightful as it slowly creeps up in intensity. It rings with attitude and sadness. It’s full sounding with drums and harmonies on the vocals in the chorus. It glides eloquently, giving me goose bumps. It’s a joy to hear Elliott Smith’s acoustic strumming always, and the saucy little hook. In this remastered version it’s lovely to feel him close like this with a clearer sound. The urgency in his singing is stinging. I love the fragility and wavering of his voice in the chorus, you can feel it deep. It’s such a passionate song that brings up so much feeling, about his difficult relationship with his stepfather. I love his use of swearing for emphasis.
Fake concerns is what’s the matter, man
And you think I ought to shake your motherfucking hand
Well, I know how much you care.
Don’t be cross, this sick I want
I’ve seen the boss blink on and off
Come here by me, I want you here
Nightmares become me, it’s so fucking clear.
‘Clementine’ is a slow lament, with loud and sort of lackadaisical strumming, it’s delicate and crisp, hollow and bold. It sounds like gold, like butter, singing so raspy, sweet and heartfelt and patient. Lines in the chorus are borrowed from the traditional American folksong. The way he draws out the last lines is very pleasing –
Though you’re still her man
It seems a long time gone
Maybe the whole thing’s wrong
What if she thinks so but just didn’t say so?
You drank yourself into slo-mo
Made an angel in the snow
Anything to pass the time
And keep that song out of your mind
Oh my darling
Oh my darling
Oh my darling, Clementine
Dreadful sorry, Clermentine.
‘Southern Bell’ starts off with this quick paced circular complex melodic finger picking and intense rhythmic strumming that increases with incredible wicked intensity as the song moves forward. It’s a big juicy chunk of sound, in a folk-punk-bluegrass style. Put the volume up, the listening experience is just vibrant and heavenly, everything is so fresh sounding and present in this remastered version. The way Smith sings in the bridge just makes me nuts, it’s so gut wrenching, that unique and sexy earnestness in his voice –
How come you’re not ashamed of what you are?
And sorry that you’re the one she got?
‘Single File’ starts with this quiet western-y eerie melody on an electric guitar that creeps in and out during the song delivering accents here and there, and then there’s a layer with warm acoustic tones strumming carrying the same melody. The lyrics are more blatantly dark, about self-hurt, dealing with yourself, coping with reality, but for all that it doesn’t sounds kind of hopeful. Elliott Smith also hums parts of it.
Here in line where stupid shit collides
With dying shooting stars
All we got to show what we really are
Is the same kind of scars
And looking at you all I see is
You’re waiting for something
You’re a murder mile
You idiot kid
Your arm’s got a death in it
‘Coming Up Roses’ starts with the warm tones of an acoustic guitar melody as the intro, then when he starts singing the tune is carried along with organ and a snare drum and ramped up with the continuous deep forlorn strumming. The way he sings is so tender, and the vocal harmonies in the chorus are very crisp and raw sounding. The lyrics sway elegantly with the pace of the song. After the chorus is a splendid beatles-esque electric guitar solo.
I’m a junkyard full of false starts
And I don’t need your permission
To bury my love under this bare light bulb
The moon is a sickle cell
It’ll kill you in time
Your cold white brother riding your blood
Like spun glass in sore eyes
While the moon does its division
You’re buried below
And you’re coming up roses everywhere you go
Red roses follow
‘Satellite’ is rich and thick with this soulful acoustic chime in a country vibe, and his singing is gentle, almost a husky whisper, it’s chilling.
When they call it a lover’s moon
‘Cause it acts just like lovers do
A burned out world you know
Staying up all night
‘Alphabet Town’ has elements of Smith’s passionate and powerful singing yet again. It’s mysterious, carrying a haunting melody, is slow and languid, and has long strides of ringing harmonica and bellowing acoustic guitar. The harmonica and general tempo give it a feeling of desertedness, feeling the haunted streets of this town.
Alphabet City is haunted
Constantina feels right at home
She probably won’t say you’re wrong
But you’re already wrong
You’re already wrong
And you threw up whatever she shot down
Said, “Show me around this alphabet town.”
Said, “Show me around.”
‘St Ides Heaven’ has rich thick deep acoustic resonance, lovely rhyming lyrics with metaphors and drug references, people’s perceptions of you, and thinking they know what’s good for you, but you know in yourself what you need. His lyrics are clever in their mix of straightforwardness and alluring imagery. His singing is potent and emphatic.
High on amphetamines
The moon is a light bulb breaking
It’ll go around with anyone
But it won’t come down for anyone
‘Good to Go’ is a tiny little gentle sad and sweet lullaby, with lyrics depicting negative self-image, drug references, emptiness, abandonment, and waiting.
I wouldn’t need a hero
If I wasn’t such a zero
If I wasn’t such a zero
Good to go
All I ever see around here is things of hers that you left lying around
Smith sings’The White Lady Loves You More’ so quietly and sweetly, he’s brought in some string accompaniment in the 2ndverse, magnificent layers interplaying and the acoustic playing is a vivid mosaic. The feeling is ethereal, and the lyrics are a metaphor for dependency.
I’m looking at a hand full of broken plans
And I’m tired of playing it down
You just want her to do anything to you
There ain’t nothing you won’t allow.
You wake up in the middle of the night
From a dream you won’t remember flashing on like a cop’s light
You say, ‘She’s waiting and I know what for.’
The white lady love you more
The white lady.
I just love ‘The Biggest Lie,’ one of my favorite songs on here. The melodic hook and the way he’s singing is just so tender it pulls at my heartstrings, his delicious guitar, the combination of the finger picking and strumming, and the lyrics in the last part just puts me over the edge with its perfection, his passion and soul just pouring out, which is the best way to end this album.
You turned white like a saint
I’m tired of dancing on a pot of gold-flaked paint
Oh, we’re so very precious, you and I
And everything that you do makes me want to die
Oh, I just told the biggest lie
I just told the biggest lie
The biggest lie.
The recording of Elliott Smith Live at Umbra Penumbra on Sept 17, 1994 is Smith’s first live performance as a solo artist. It’s raw, real, stripped down, soulful, deep and beautiful, a joy to listen to him live. I only got to see him once in Brooklyn at Northsix the same year he died. Most of these songs are from his first solo album, Roman Candle, and others are just rare treats. His voice is fragile yet incredibly powerful. It’s fun to hear his early beginnings as a solo artist, his slight indecisiveness on what to play and bashfulness interacting with the audience is really sweet. Neil Gust joins in on the last track, “Half Right” – a Heatmiser song they say they made up that day.
This Elliott Smith: Expanded 25th Anniversary Edition is definitely something you want as part of your collection. It’s a perfect way to get reacquainted with the greatness of Elliott Smith, or to discover him for the first time.