Elliott Smith – An Introduction

Perhaps I’m getting old, but considering his impact and influence on independent music from the late 1990s through to his early, unexpected tragic death in 2003, the notion of listeners needing An Introduction to Elliott Smith comes as a bit of a surprise. For here we have the man who created some of the 1990s finest indie folk records, taking his lo-fi melancholic shuffles all the way to the Oscars, performing Good Will Hunting‘s ‘Miss Misery’ with an orchestra in an ill-fitting battered white suit. Nevermind one of the primary reasons I picked up a guitar in the first place was because I wanted to learn how to play ‘Angeles’ (which I still haven’t mastered), but doesn’t everyone already hold Elliott close to their hearts? My Mother remembers where she was when the news broke that John Lennon had died, and I carry an equally clear memory of when I heard of Elliott’s demise. (I was working in a record shop in Edinburgh. Coincidentally we’d just installed a poster art show featuring a couple of posters for Elliott, and that very morning I’d put on Figure 8 for a listen, until a fellow co-worker asked me to take it off for being “too depressing.” A few hours later, a tearful co-worker came down the steps from the upper floor office and shared the news).

Getting realistic though, the speed at which the zeitgeist moves through music (mere disposable content for our iPods by this point) means there are indeed a legion of young’uns who’ve never even heard Smith’s complicated finger picks and honeyed sighs. Putting aside personal favourites (in my opinion, you want an introduction to Elliott Smith, go out and buy it all) An Introduction makes for an auspicious entry point into Elliott’s oeuvre, albeit one heavily skewed towards the high peaks of his 1997 masterwork Either/Or, nearly half of which is included here.

Signed to Kill Rock Stars (at that point, almost uniformly a loud, scrappy, Pacific Northwest punk label) in the hey-day of Alternative Mainstream Rock, Elliott stuck out unlike any other. And while this collection skims quickly over his post-Oscar major label pop epics XO and Figure 8 with one track pulled from each (Elliott’s abilities as a world class pop arranger pushed to the sidelines) what remains is a gorgeous document of a discography cut short all too soon. The same is true for his final work, From the Basement on the Hill, a planned White Album-style double-album chopped to a single record and released amid controversy as to its closeness to Elliott’s wishes when released after his death.

Despite its shortcomings, An Introduction still proves there’s a lineage leading from Paul Simon through Cat Stevens and ending with Elliott Smith — all folk pop masters capable of the most uplifting of melodies and transformative lyrical abilities. While some find his music uniformly miserablist, I’ve always found it overwhelmingly redemptive.

Elliott Smith remains a unique artist, one of the few with whom it’s capable of feeling a personal relationship with despite never having met — I’m noticing now, for example, that without thinking, I’ve even used his first name throughout this review. Admittedly, I was lucky and managed to watch him play on a rainy evening in Vancouver in the late 1990s. After the show as the crowd filtered out, I noticed Elliott smoking a cigarette in a darkened doorway. Walking over to say hello, I noticed the guy looked a bit sad, so I thought it best to just leave him be with his final few puffs. One can hypothesize endlessly about his inner turmoil, ending in the gruesome act of stabbing himself in the heart — not once, but twice — but much like that night in Vancouver, it’s best to just leave the guy be and let the music speak for itself. The masterpieces in miniature scattered across An Introduction ensure he’ll be remembered always as a musician first, foremost, and forevermore.

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