Reflecting on the genius of Elliott Smith

As most of us with large music collections there is the ebb and flow of revisiting old favorite albums or artists for simply sentimental reasons, or at times just to remind yourself why you chose to keep one album over others.  Recently while deciding which of my 300+ cd’s I wanted to upload to my computer I came across four albums of the late artist Elliott Smith.  There was no doubt in my mind why I had held on to his music, it was classic and timeless; his music (for me) symbolized a close friend always there you could rely on during lonelier days; oddly I felt somewhat guilty having not listened to his music for some time.  It felt like leaving a penpal awaiting a response letter and just saying you would get back to them when you could find the time.  It was also an odd time to rekindle my interest in his music with the 8th anniversary of his death approaching next week on October 21.

I was introduced to Smith’s music on a lark when visiting a past bandmate in LA; he had Smith’s self-titled 1994 album playing in the background and I really liked what I was hearing; I clearly recall the song playing was “Needle In The Hay”.  After that visit I did my best to get as much as I could of Smith’s work and up until about 4 years ago listened to his music on a regular basis.  I was living in Boston at the time and hearing of his death on the way to work; it was a shock and almost one of disbelief; I was saddened on one hand that he was actually gone and at the same time amazed that his death would make mainstream news to report.  It has been said by many that for them it was “the day the music died”; and for my generation, I would have to agree that Smith was one of those bright lights that quickly faded before truly gaining the geniune recognition of their brilliance.  In some ways, art imitated life with Smith; his songs often contained issues about heartbreak, sadness, dissapointment, and emptiness; clearly not the happiest themese or uplifting music much of us tend to gravitate towards.  However, it was just those themes that worked with his compositions and allowed Smith to create a unique sound that would be difficult to geniunely replicate.  It would appear that Smith was far more comfortable hiding in the shadows and releasing albums for a dedicated underground fan base.  From interviews I ‘ve seen or heard, he appeared to be a painfully shy person who clearly yearned for artistic freedom, privacy, and appreciated (humbly) his minimal success in whatever form.

When Basement on The Hill was posthumously released a year to his death in 2004; I was so eager to find out what he had been working on since his album  Figure 8.  Smith had not released an album in nearly 4-years.   There had been a buzz prior to the release of Basement on The Hill that it was Smith’s intention for it to be a double-cd set; but much of the material had remained unfinished.  The version of Basement on The Hill that was released was produced by Rob Schapf  who had produced both of Smith’s previous releases XO and Figure 8, and his prior girlfriend, Joanna Bulme of the band Quasi.  Schapf has stated that he did not really produce much on the album and only used the materials that Smith had recorded in the making of the final copy of the album, however, he has also noted that it was most likely not the final product that Smith would have released, regardless he felt that leaving it untouched was the very least he could do to preserve Smith’s artist merit and contribution.  The album was at the very least, a parting gift by Smith’s family to provide some solace marking the first anniversary of his death to those that admired his music. 

There are few artists who I can honestly say that I like all of their albums equally, Smith would be the exception.  If you do not have albums by Smith, my advice is to start with his 1997 album Either/Or;  just such a solid example of his creativity and gifts as a talented musician and song writer.

There is an interesting SPIN magazine article and reflection about Elliott Smith by Ellen Carpenter, you can click here to read more.

4 Responses to “Reflecting on the genius of Elliott Smith”

  1. 1 Piergiorgio
    December 20, 2011 at 1:43 PM

    It is nice for me to read your article. It sounds sincere. I discovered Elliott some 5 years ago through the movie “The Royal Tenenbaums” which had “Needle in the Hay” in the soundtrack.
    I agree when you say he’s one of the few artists of which I could say every album is good.
    Greetings from Italy.

  2. 2 rojg
    March 26, 2015 at 3:02 PM

    Thank you for your article. It’s funny, I was kind of young when Elliot Smith was releasing his genius. The two songs I’m pretty sure I heard first…maybe even three…were soundtrack contributions. The first was a Beatles’ cover of “Because” on the American Beauty soundtrack where Smith sang/harmonized all parts of the song a capella (and heavily produced, and awesome). For years after that release, I still wouldn’t really discover Smith. The second soundtrack title immediately hooked me. It was “Needle in the Hay” from “Tennenbaums.” My God, I played that song until it made me almost sick. As an aside, “Tennenbaums” had an excellent soundtrack in it’s own right. Later on I learned of Miss Misery and Angeles from Good Will Hunting. It was films that brought me to Elliot Smith. And I’ve been a HUGE fan ever since. My favorites are Figure 8, Either/Or, Self-titled, and Basement on a Hill. Even recently I’ve somehow come across other songs of which I wasn’t familiar: “Angel in the Snow” (maybe from Up in the Air sdtk), and “I Don’t Think I’m Ever Going to Figure it Out.” Wow. The way he wrote, and played harmonic/lead acoustic, and sang was nuts. I truly believe if the shy man had focused on songwriting and never gone on a stage–if that’s even possible–maybe he’d be alive today, maybe not. A fine article on a ridiculously fine artist. Thanks

    • 3 jacobull
      March 26, 2015 at 3:57 PM

      Nice to know that people are still reading this blog; I’ve not contributed for some time now (feeling guilty). My favorite album is Smith’s posthumous album “Basement on the hill”; it’s a comforting album, sincere, and complex. Although it is a fine album in its release, it is believed that it is not what Smith would have eventually released – the tracks were as he left them in mid-production and creation. His family decided to release the album as is, so in many ways it is appropriate for fans mourning the loss of a unique artist who’s life was cut far too short.

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