"So help yourself with this bitter pill or someone else will," jokes Elliott Smith in "Single File" from his second album of the same name. Released in 1995, the record established Smith's sound and vocabulary – dark themes, acoustic guitars, multi-track expanded vocals, and chord changes so great you almost forget you're hearing stories of extreme pain and self-destruction.
In the years that followed, Smith was apparently unable to write a mediocre song. It turned out to be masterpiece after masterpiece, most of which he couldn't take anymore. His tragic death shouldn't have surprised anyone who really listened, but that didn't make it easier to accept.
To celebrate the album's 25th anniversary, Kill has reissued rock stars Elliott Smith with improved sound, an impressive photo series and memories from Smith's friends, and a live recording in Portland's Umbra Penumbra. The new remix is so glowing that it makes you feel like the singer-songwriter is in the room with you. His pain is already palpable, but most of his songs don't sound angry, unlike those of Kurt Cobain, for example. Beauty finds its way through.
People were perfectly able to make an album in 1995 with an acoustic guitar and good vocals. But the new mixes are shockingly alive. You can smell the plaid flannel. The highs are higher, the lows are lower, and Elliott Smith's crisis has been restored. Before getting too seduced, remember that if he appears sentimental from afar, it is not him. The song with the most romantic title – "The White Lady Loves You More" – is really about cocaine. "Clementine" sounds delicate, but it's about alcohol and regret, referring to a 19th century song about death.
The best-known track on the album is the opiate theme "Needle in the Hay," later used by Wes Anderson in The Royal Tenenbaums from 2001, and set over a scene in which Luke Wilson cuts his wrists. The relentless chords are nervous and waiting to be numbed: "I'm taking the cure so I can be calm wherever I want," sings Smith. On every track, no matter how dark, the guitar chords caress, and his voice is a kind of ointment – calming, yet undeniably real.
Smith grew up in Dallas with an abusive stepfather, graduated from Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, then went on to small gigs in Portland and larger ones in New York and Los Angeles, where he settled in 1999. On his last album, 2000s In Figure 8, he paid tribute to the City of Angels in “LA” and sang, “LA / Morning had to come / I would walk in the sun / Live by day / Last night I wanted to throw it all away. ”
He did just that on October 21, 2003. After a long struggle with heroin and crack, Smith was sober for two months when he allegedly stabbed himself in the Silver Lake house he shared with girlfriend Jennifer Chiba. Chiba, the only witness, claimed he was not a victim of drugs, but of sobriety.
"He died in a valiant attempt to lead a healthy life," she said in an interview, noting that no illegal substances were found in his system. “Anyone who understands substance abuse knows that you are using drugs to hide from your past or to calm yourself from strong, overwhelming feelings. So when you are newly clean and take off the medications that masked all of those feelings, you are most vulnerable. "
Smith gave his last concert in Salt Lake City less than a month before his death. His last song was a cover of "Long, Long, Long", a sublime grumpy George Harrison song about eternity from the White album. In an amateur video on the show, Smith sings the final lines, "You know I need you / Oh, I loved you," and the crowd applauds. He seems happy for a moment, but then the show is over and he's gone far too soon.
RELATED: Fall Preview: All of the TVs, Movies, and Music We Can't Wait to See and Hear this Season
Stay up to date on LA cuisine and culture. Sign up for our newsletter today.
A new edition of Elliott Smith's Musical Genius and Crippling Addiction Ring Loud and Clear was first published in Los Angeles Magazine.