Essential album: Elliott Smith – Elliott Smith review

by Jo Higgs

During a particularly low part of my life, I found myself increasingly isolated within the flat I lived in – shared spaces filled me with a great sense of unease; my own room leaving me lonely and ever-deflating. I couldn’t settle and my mood was so low that interacting with those outside that wee microcosm of the world offered little respite. My antidote to this seemingly unending discomfort in living was to frequent my local park once the sky had blackened as far as it would, and I would stay there, free of stress, knocking out the dents in myself inflicted by the struggle of the hours prior. Within whichever spot I judged to be both the furthest away from other people and any form of light, I would lie down, put headphones on and close my eyes.

Indisputably, the defining album of these moon-bathings was Elliott Smith’s self-titled. I have scarily vivid memories of the quietly brooding staccato guitar intro of Needle in the Hay helping me sink into the shadow-blanketed earth, as windswept grass caressed the back of my neck and ears.

Elliott’s releases with Heatmiser and his first solo record, Roman Candle, are wonderful in their own right, but crucially they laid fertile ground for what followed them. In my experience, most fans of Elliott’s will point to the irresistibly sugary melodies of Either/Or or the expansive instrumentation and grit of Figure 8 as their go to record. Admittedly, everyone proclaims it’s a tight call between nearly every album of his, but I’ve always found his self-titled to be the most intimate and engaging listen – even a whole 25 years after its release. Time cannot erode how touchingly delicate Smith’s voice, his writing and his ideas are.

Its inclusivity is its defining quality. By this, I mean that it feels as if it is a battle against loneliness, fought by the music for both Elliott and the listener. It involves the listener as a participant within its playtime; without a listener devoting themselves to it, it loses its strength. If a record spins and there is no one around, does it make a sound?

While the whole album is devastatingly personal, large parts are written almost as if Smith has removed himself from the situation; the oft-used second person lyrical narrative places him as an omniscient narrator simultaneously addressing his actual self and the listener: ‘you drank yourself into slowmo’. It provides a therapeutic conversation between the dainty melodies of his words and the thoughts they conjure in your own mind. Even now, in a vastly different world from that of its inception, through this dialogue, the listener becomes irrevocably intertwined to the subject, as if the artist and audience share in the same sadness. It even occurs that the iconic blue and white cover, with its two cut out silhouette figures falling from atop a building, is a combatant thrust against loneliness. The two are isolated, disparate, and forlorn, but understanding and empathetic to the other’s gravity-deigned plight.

Its lyrical address may be its first mode of inclusivity, but the musicality of Smith’s playing, and the deftness of his mixing, feeds into the friendliness and kindness to the listener. Nearly every track sees layers of differently rhythmed acoustic guitars swaying across the mix, as if playing with each other; this is true throughout his discography though, perhaps, most prevalent here. In effect, the distinctly stereo panning of the guitars circles the listener, slowly inching in for a well-needed hug.

The pop-gem of the release, Coming Up Roses, sees Smith wrap a dour and miserable set of lyrics in an optimistic seeming titular line doused in joyous harmony as he accompanies himself. Its organ-led facade of hope is a welcome alleviation of barebones instrumentals and touching sparsity, as found on the majority of other cuts. Lunar imagery permeates the project, including Coming Up Roses: ‘the moon is a sickle cell, it’ll kill you in time’. Due to my listening at night, under the loosely speckled sky, I’ve always found a certain irony in this line. A ‘sickle cell’ is a deformed blood cell, failing to carry oxygen as it should, thus, suffocating him. However, for me, hiding from the world, knowing only the moon can see me, it was precisely the opposite; in those times it was only listening to this album alone that I found I could breathe.

It’s a truly empathetic album. Its spaciousness allows it to listen to you as much as you listen to it. It holds you tightly and reassures you that we’re all in this together.

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