In retrospect, a lot of parallels can be drawn between Elliott Smith and Kurt Cobain: both Pacific Northwesterners (Cobain by birth, Smith by choice), both masterful songwriters with a knack for marrying Beatlesque pop hooks with harrowing lyrics, both underground icons with a complicated relationship with mainstream success — and, of course, both deeply troubled men, who struggled with addiction and depression right up until their shocking and violent (and most likely self-inflicted) deaths. Few of those comparisons, if any, would have been drawn when Smith released his solo debut, Roman Candle, 25 years ago, just three months after Cobain’s death. Indeed, Smith’s homespun acoustic demos couldn’t have sounded further removed from Seattle’s grunge scene, or even his work with thorny Portland indie rock band Heatmiser; in one of the last interviews he ever gave, Smith professed that he feared his “head would be chopped off immediately when [Roman Candle] came out.”
Roman Candle’s nine songs were recorded on a four-track in a basement, and they sound like it, bearing all kinds of sonic blemishes like guitar squeaks and audible plosives. (Four of them don’t even have proper titles.) Smith recorded these songs just to get them on record; the plan was to see if any record labels were willing to sign him for a single. When Heatmiser’s manager and Smith’s then-girlfriend, J.J. Gonson, played a tape of the songs to Portland-based Cavity Search Records, the label was so taken with them that it offered to release the unedited tape in full.
Smith’s songwriting, and his sound, grew bigger and more ambitious with every album; he arguably covered as much artistic ground between Figure 8’s polished pop and his lo-fi high-water mark Either / Or as he did between Either / Or and Roman Candle. But what’s constant across Smith’s discography — even on From a Basement on the Hill, his posthumously assembled finale — is an impeccable sense of songcraft and arrangement. A song like “Condor Ave” sounds so fully formed, so complete, even with just vocals and an acoustic guitar, that it’s easy to draw a line from it to later songs like “Between the Bars” and “Independence Day”; it just so happened that he wrote this one first. (Astonishingly, Smith reportedly wrote it when he was just 17.) It’s nearly as strong as either of those other songs, and it’s not hard to imagine the more ornate form that it might have taken had Smith recorded it a few more years into his career.
It also sounds like a much lighter song than it really is. “Condor Ave” was one of several songs on Roman Candle whose deft guitarwork invited comparisons to Simon & Garfunkel, although Paul Simon never wrote a song about a woman driving off after an argument with her boyfriend, falling asleep behind the wheel and dying in the resulting crash. With Smith’s songs, the devils are in the lyrical details, and many of his most accessible songs are his darkest. Take the title track, which deals with Smith’s relationship with his abusive stepfather. (Similar to Cobain’s parents’ divorce, the abuse Smith suffered at the hands of his stepfather cast a shadow over his life and songwriting.) Where “Condor Ave” tells its story in vivid, novelistic detail, “Roman Candle” is blunt and forceful, never more so than on the chorus: “I want to hurt him/ I want to give him pain/ I’m a roman candle/ My head is full of flames.”
Due to Roman Candle’s rudimentary, unvarnished instrumentation, the songs therein can blur together on a casual listen — and Roman Candle is very much a record that rewards repeated listening. The songs have hooks, but their real barbs are in his lyrics. Smith may not have screamed himself raw in the same way that his flannel-wearing contemporaries to the north did, but a close listen to his whispered vocals revealed that his command of both empathy and cruelty was beyond compare: empathy in the case of “No Name #4”, which sounds like overhearing a neighbor’s private conversation, and cruelty in the case of “Last Call” (“You’re a tongueless talker/ You don’t care what you say/ You’re a jaywalker and you just walk away”). In the case of the latter, those words could be spoken by someone who’s been drinking all night or is stone sober — or, for that matter, could be directed outward at someone else or reflected inward at Smith himself.
The thing about Smith’s songs is that it’s so hard to tell, especially in his absence. It’s been said that once a song is published, it no longer belongs to the person who wrote it, but to everyone who hears it and writes it into their own lives. Perhaps that was why Smith was so uncomfortable when “Miss Misery” blew up to the extent that it did or when Wes Anderson used “Needle in the Hay” to soundtrack a suicide attempt in The Royal Tenenbaums: these were his deeply personal dispatches, rendered on widescreen. Smith may not have meant for the songs on Roman Candle to be heard by anyone, but that didn’t stop them from meaning so much to so many.
Essential Tracks: “Condor Ave”, “Roman Candle”, and “Last Call”