A Haystack of Needles: Elliott Smith's Misunderstood S/T Record
Everyone has their favorite Elliott Smith album. Due to the somewhat segmented nature of a his career and legacy, there is a fragmented quality to the discussion: some love the "firsties" aspect of his work with Heatmiser or his solo debut Roman Candle, some the spare dramatics of Either/Or, some the industry-baiting and outsized instrumentation of XO or Figure 8, and still others side with some of the posthumous work (From a Basement…, New Moon, et al) as snapshots of a tortured artist in retrospect. With all these watershed moments, one album seems to be overlooked, or at least underestimated when compared to the others: Smith's self-titled 1995 album.
Many consider Elliott Smith to be the work that "outed" him as an addict, citing all of its substance-heavy imagery and metaphors. Those around him knew that this was just a way for him to process his feelings and experiences into something relatable:
"I think in a way a lot of times Elliott's songs were about bigger things, more than people realize, but they also could help to be self-portraits in a way because I think most good artists are taking themselves and their interaction with the world and reinterpreting through the light of what they make."
Marc Swanson, friend
quoted by Benjamin Nugent for his biography Elliot Smith and The Big Nothing)
Ironically, most accounts of his life maintain that Elliott's dalliances with serious drugs were minimal around this time. Of course, within a few years there would be significant and ongoing issues that ultimately contributed to his untimely death. While the work definitely takes advantage of some drug symbolism ("threw up whatever she shot down", "Christian brothers", "getting good marks", "the white lady", etc), Elliott was able to make the same turns of phrase read as astute, if harsh, interrogation and self-criticism. In the oeuvres of other artists, a record with such heavy doses of counter-culture innuendo might have been appraised as merely their "drug album", and in most cases dismissed as such. Smith made his "drug album" one of his most beautiful records and made the title his own name. It contains at least a few of his best-written and most hummable songs and lays the groundwork for much of the orchestration to come on later projects: witness the rollicking overdubbed guitars on "Southern Belle", the serpentine tension-and-release of "Needle In The Hay", the subtle steel guitar twang in "Single File" - the seeds of a pop composer for the ages were being planted on these tracks even more so than on the virtuosic but relatively straightforward Roman Candle, seeds that would be in full bloom three years later with the seminal XO.
Listening now, 20-plus years on from its original release, I still hear the creaks of the stool that Elliott is sitting on while he records "Satellite", the clicking of the tape riding the melody like wrapping paper on a gift. I still feel my guts go raw when he expresses an uncanny mix of fear and delight in a new relationship on "Alphabet Town", and I still get all the catharsis expressed in his final shouted line "I'm ready to go out!!". I still have to tap my foot and sing along with "St. Ides Heaven", which contains what is surely one of his most beautiful hooks. I still feel the same sense of loss, regret, and pity for any person so wounded that they could write a song like "Good To Go", and then I just feel lucky that he shared his gift with all of us.
Like all great albums, it ends on a perfect moment with "The Biggest Lie": "Oh we're so very precious you and I…and everything that you do makes me want to die…I just told the biggest lie". The lyric is at once self-effacing, beautifully elegiac, intimate, universal. And the way he sings it is vintage Smith: wavering, guileless, the note a little too high for his natural range. All in all, the album ends with a disarming musical moment that only Elliott Smith could pull off.
(Note: This piece was re-worked and expanded from a blog post originally published elsewhere in 2016. I like it, and love this album, so I thought it deserved a second life here on Re-Critic. Hope you agree.)