Portland, Oregon’s Heatmiser featured the melodic-abrasive formula that made the Northwest famous, but with a lyrical twist — Neil Gust is an openly gay songwriter. And Elliott Smith, Heatmiser’s other singer/songwriter, went on to become a major pop force on his own.
Firing off 14 songs in 37 minutes, Dead Air is laced with hints of Fugazi, Hüsker Dü and Helmet, although the record is not nearly as distinctive as any of those bands. With its crisp drum bash, big, distorted guitars and Gust and Smith’s hoarse vocals submerged just enough to muffle the lyrics (stray audible lines and their delivery make it clear we’re listening to some angry/sensitive young men here), it’s a textbook example of the strengths and weaknesses of early ’90s indie hard rock. Particularly on “Stray,” “Still” and “Lowlife,” the energy and urgency are enough to rescue the music from the merely generic. But just barely.
Yellow No. 5 offers up five more quick slices, this time with a bit more personality and varied approaches. The punky attack of the hyperactive lead-off track (“Wake”) and the frantic “The Corner Seat” alternates with the subtly skewed rock of “Fortune 500” and “Idler,” which works up to a modest majesty, propelled by a grand whammy-bar hook. Most listeners missed the gay content of Dead Air, but there’s a lyric sheet this time.
Striking out on his own, Smith became a minor hipster sensation in ’94 with the brittle, brooding and impressively consistent (albeit 30-minute-long) Roman Candle. A far cry from Heatmiser’s aggro attack, the album features hushed, folky tunes with lightly brushed drums, acoustic 12-string guitars and some pretty fingerpicking by Smith, whose hoarse whisper tells tales of disintegrating relationships sketched in elliptical yet pungent terms, like diary entries. Especially on the title track, “Condor Ave.” and “No Name #3,” Smith radiates palpable hurt and bitterness without once raising his voice.
Smith’s extracurricular activities only strengthened the band — Heatmiser attains a powerful sense of mood on Cop and Speeder, especially in “Flame!” and “Antonio Carlos Jobim.” Thanks to improved songwriting, the album finds the band beginning to emerge from its flat monochrome tones. The lyric sheet is unnecessary this time — the vocals are way up front. Except when he sounds like a ringer for Sebadoh’s Lou Barlow, Gust is developing a more original vocal approach, while Smith has figured out how to integrate his seething whisper into a full-tilt rock band (even if he is saving his best tunes for his solo albums). Lashing out at a succession of failed loves (or is it just one?), the band purges with vehemence and a dark confessional candor that’s not always attractive but undeniably honest, nailing it most effectively on “Busted Lip.”
Smith’s second solo album improves greatly on the recipe. Elliott Smith‘s songs, melodies, arrangements and production are all stronger and more fully realized than those on Roman Candle, although the record covers the same thematic territory — substance abuse, disappointment and his uniquely resigned defiance. (Like the music, the cover is bracing and poetic: two figures falling between rows of buildings.) Bleak, almost uncomfortably unsparing and yet tragically beautiful, “Needle in the Hay,” “Coming Up Roses,’ “Southern Belle” — and virtually every other track here — make Smith something of a Nick Drake for the indie-rock cognoscenti. Portland pal Rebecca Gates of the Spinanes adds her voice to one song and Gust is on another, but otherwise Elliott Smith is as billed, a solitary endeavor.
either/or is even more fully realized, with the occasional stick applied to snare, lightly layered vocals, an electric guitar turned down to two and other bas relief effects, none of which compete one iota with the dreamy power of Smith’s increasingly Beatlesque singing or the piercing power of his lyrics. “Say Yes,” which ends the album on a note that forces reconsideration of everything that precedes it, is naked in its unresolved stock-taking after a breakup: “I’m standing up the morning after / Situations get fucked up and turned around sooner or later / And I could be another fool or the exception to the rule.” The exception to the rule of Smith’s haunting calm comes in the boppy “Pictures of Me,” where he releases some real anger in the lines “Jailer who sells personal hells / Who’d like to see me down on my fucking knees / Everybody’s dying just to get the disease.”
Smith’s growing stature led him to a major-label deal, with the first result being XO, a tastefully commercialized production (completely with horns and strings) that respects Smith’s privacy and, in fact, does him a solid service. The biggest danger, that his delicate voice would be drowned out by fuller arrangements, is unfounded, although it does heighten the Beatlesque echoes, and a bit of other British archetypes in “Baby Britain” and “Waltz #2 (XO).” The harmonies (not the words, which are as down and harsh as anything here) of “I Didn’t Understand,” however, are straight out of the Brian Wilson playbook. And while the album does contain a pretty but pointed song titled “Bottle Up and Explode!,” Smith does not convey a lot of tension in the lyrics, which are more resigned and observational than anguished. In the loud, thick “Amity,” he sings (referencing the title of the Halo Benders’ 1994 album), “God don’t make no junk but it’s plain to see / He still made me” in an even tone that gives away little. If the songs are not the most profound or developed of Smith’s catalogue, it’s still a great record that proves how durable integrity can be.
While Smith was at work on XO, he got an unexpected stroke of mainstream attention due to the inclusion of an otherwise unreleased song, “Miss Misery,” in the soundtrack of Good Will Hunting, made by Portland-based film director Gus Van Sant. That led to a uniquely strange cultural moment on March 23, 1998, when a disconsolate outsider artist performed his Oscar-nominated (!!!) song to a global audience of ten gazillion people. (Let the record show that he lost the little gold man statue to Céline Dion for “My Heart Will Go On.”)
Smith leaped into the big leagues with both feet for Figure 8, a record that feels very different from its predecessors. Recorded in part at Abbey Road, it’s brisk and busy, up front and confident, upbeat. While nothing here fails the consistent artistry of his work, neither does any of it make the direct connection to a soul and heart.
Smith died October 21, 2003 at his home in Los Angeles.