Elliott Smith, the self-titled effort which was the iconic singer-songwriter's second full-length, is an incredible album when taken purely on its musical merits. While I feel it is my duty as a (admittedly amateur) music critic to evaluate the album solely on those terms, certain albums become so deeply associated with the emotional states they inspire in listeners that it is impossible to listen objectively. Elliott Smith is one of those albums. However, I understand that the hosannas of a devoted fan are of little use to an undecided listener considering giving this album a shot, and so I will do keep my petty little emotions to a minimum and just talk about Elliott Smith.
Here, the raw potential on display in Heatmiser (the alt-rock group where Smith cut his musical teeth) and Roman Candle (the first album after Smith reinvented himself as a soft-spoken acoustic guitar-slinger) reaches its full fruition. The chord progressions and melodies are so effortlessly beautiful that you can't believe that it took until 1995 for someone to write and release them. Most songs consist of only vocals and acoustic guitar; electric guitar, percussion, and keyboards play bit parts in a few songs, but their presence never takes the spotlight away from Smith and his trusty guitar. One would expect such a bare-bones musical setup to eventually become boring or repetitive, but Smith changes mood, tempo, and song structure frequently enough to keep listeners interested from start to finish. Smith is one of those guitar players whose genius generally goes unnoticed because of its lack of flash. If you listen closely, though, it becomes clear that, rather than just lazily strum his way through the album, Smith has crafted an appealing mix of dexterous finger-picking, passionate downstrokes, and (when appropriate) strumming. The Beatles' influence inherent in this music has already been heavily documented, but it bears repeating because it explains why his music appeals to people who have no time for the likes of Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen. The melodies in songs like "Needle in the Hay," "The Biggest Lie," and "Coming Up Roses" are a gateway into the world Smith depicts with his lyrics, a world which is equal parts bleak and beautiful.
On Elliott Smith, the lyrics vacillate between scathing, punk-style condemnation and the sensitive personal narratives more commonly associated with singer-songwriters. In a way Smith could, despite his much more sedate sound, be considered a brother-in-arms with many of today's folk-punk groups. In some songs, Smith rails bitterly against authority ("Christian Brothers"), dead-end towns ("Alphabet Town"), and their dead-end occupants ("Southern Belle"); in others, we get stark, uncomfortably realistic depictions of addiction and dependency at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder ("Needle in the Hay," "St. Ides Heaven," "The White Lady Loves You More"). All of Smith's lyrics are direct and heartfelt without being sappy or lacking poetic invention, but the ones that hit the hardest are the ones in which Smith lets down his tough-kid guard and gets personal. His default mood is heartbroken and self-loathing, as on the negative "Good to Go," the deceptively cheery-sounding "Coming up Roses," and the album's gorgeously teary-eyed finale, "The Biggest Lie." Still, Smith lets a little light shine through the cracks, like when the drunken screw-up in "St. Ides Heaven" is moved to compare the moon to "a light bulb breaking." It may not seem like much, but when your world is crumbling around you, sometimes salvation is being able to pull just one beautiful thing from the wreckage.
The perfect summary of Elliott Smith's legacy is an anonymous quote written on the tribute wall made for him in Los Angeles after his death: "It wasn't so much music as medicine." For the lonely, depressed and suicidal, Smith has always been a hero, the one musician who not only understood their pain, but had the talent, sensitivity, and insight necessary to turn it into something beautiful. When life seems unbearable, I can't imagine doing anything but listening to this album. It helps every single time. Even if you don't need music like this to get you through the rough patches, everyone should have at least one album from this most extraordinary and unique musician. Elliott Smith is the purest, most perfect album the man ever created.