When director Nickolas Rossi filmed the interviews behind Heaven Adores You, it was clear he had one thing on his mind: dismantling the single-sided image of Elliott Smith. The sad, soft-spoken, brooding singer-songwriter was given justice on screen as Jon Brion, Larry Crane, Slim Moon, and more gave open interviews about working with Smith. His childhood demos and Heatmiser days were clearly saturated in just as much happiness as they were pain. Over the course of the film, it becomes clear that Smith was destined to become a songwriter — and to change the game while doing it. The film’s soundtrack — a carefully curated selection of 20 demos, unreleased tracks, and alternate takes — represents the film’s breadth and, in the process, the ebb and flow of one of music’s beloved prodigies.
It begins, like all of Smith’s doings, modestly. A 14-year-old Smith works his way through “Untitled Guitar Finger Picking”. Over the course of its 84-second runtime, the song drips an incredible sweetness from lone fingerpicking. There’s no more appropriate introduction to his work than that. While his haunting vocals and infamous death stand as the pillars of his name, Smith’s truest feat was reinventing the way singer-songwriters played guitar, often through bizarre tuning and somber melodies. On Heaven Adores You, previously unreleased cuts like the classic rock trudge of “Untitled Melancholy Song” and western twang of “Unknown Song (instrumental)” highlight his prowess on the guitar. Smith performs them with head-bowed humility, disguising the songs in a veil of simplicity, especially on standout “Unknown (instrumental)”. For lack of a more precise word, it’s beautiful. The acoustic number’s charm stems from its intimacy; Smith writes like he’s left the door to his bedroom open after getting home from high school and is too in the zone to realize those downstairs can hear.
[Read: Elliott Smith: Needle in the Hay]
A substantial chunk of the film is spent examining Smith’s time in Heatmiser, the early ‘90s Portland punk band he played in prior to his solo career. The role of the team player is revisited in Heaven Adores You. Several years ago, an alternate version of his solo song “Christian Brothers” surfaced online, where an intense rhythm drives the song while suffocating the space with decibel-shaking loneliness. Here, touched up a bit, it’s a huge step up from the stripped-down original on Smith’s self-titled LP. The same goes for this solo version of “Plainclothes”. Originally performed by Heatmiser, this bare take sees guitar reverb and basic drumming gel in a way that’s reminiscent of when you watch a song in the works come together, piece by piece, and it begins to light up. Others Heatmiser cuts, like “Hamburgers” with Neil Gust of Heatmiser — a simple keyboard part and directionless tambourine that drag on for four minutes like the comedown of a drunken jam session — are throwaways at best. It raises the question of judgement and whether or not the published renditions we hear are actually the best versions.
Given how many alternate versions or demos of previously released songs are included on the soundtrack — “Coast to Coast”, “Waltz #1”, “True Love”, “Miss Misery”, “LA”, “Son of Sam”, “The Last Hour”, “Everything Means Nothing to Me”, “Happiness” — the rest of the album unravels like a Smith playlist left on shuffle. Hearing them in slightly tweaked ways provides new insight into old favorites. Unlike his other posthumous albums, 2004’s From a Basement on the Hill and 2007’s New Moon, the album’s tracklist occasionally feels like a chronological cakewalk with few new songs left to discover. Fan favorite “True Love” finally gets an official release here, but apart from that, all proper new songs — complete with titles and studio mixing — have already been released.
Heaven Adores You closes with what appears to be a harrowed track called “I Love My Room” that winds up being a goofy piano ballad in the style of The Beatles. It’s Smith at his realest, a time when he’s happy just because, a side listeners often choose to forget in favor of fawning over the idealized dark romance of his death.
Midway through the album, a live version of “Say Yes” from Yo Yo Festival in 1997 begins with audience requests. “The girl!” someone in the crowd yells. “Play the one about the girl!” Vague, yes, but everyone knows the one. For someone writing about heartbreak, uncertainty, and wonder, Smith lacked a lot of straightforward love songs. This 1997 recording certainly isn’t his best live performance of the song (unless you’re a sucker for missed notes and voice cracks), but the recording itself is crystal clear. Perhaps that’s the point. Authenticity overrides any technical flaws or audio blips in the recordings of Heaven Adores You. Smith’s songwriting earned him fame because of his ability to wed identifiable, poignant, and original tuning with the sincerity of a distant friend catching you up on painful moments of their life, all the while believing a silver lining may eventually form. Smith helps us search for our own emotions, our sadness, and level with it. The unreleased material on Heaven Adores You gives us one more bag of songs to hold close, asking him to save us the same way he asked that of us.
Essential Tracks: “Christian Brothers (performed with Heatmiser)”, “Unknown (instrumental)”, and “Plainclothes Man (solo version)”