Elliott Smith at the 70th Academy Awards ceremony: When it’s mentioned, it’s as one of those cautionary anecdotes, an example of the fundamental incompatibility of the underground with commercial artistry. But it’s all there, or if it isn’t, we can pretend it is. Trisha Yearwood has finished her performance, and the onstage columns drift apart like glaciers. The camera looks away to the assembled guests. Vangelis-like synthbeds cue Smith, hustling to hit his mark at center stage. (The original plan called for him to perform sitting on the stairs leading to the stage.) His hand accidentally brushes the strings. The synths recede with the curtains, and he begins. He begins softly — too softly, so the vocals are brought up midway through the first line. That white suit is oversized, or perhaps it was just ill-fitting, and perhaps no suit would have been fitting — not here, certainly, but nowhere else. either. As usual, his hair is long and unwashed, but his ears still poke through. He told Under The Radar that, lest he end up looking at Jack Nicholson, he decided to fix his gaze on the balcony, but every close-up catches him looking at the footlights, or his microphone. Wider shots see him kicking his right foot out: a timekeeping tic, the Liverpool leg. None of it mattered. He had a song, a song nothing could fuck with, a 3/4 pop song with a melody that rose and fell like lungs. The orchestra offered respectful yet redundant accompaniment — musical director Bill Conti, of “Gonna Fly Now” fame, would win an Emmy for his work tonight — and Smith is joined in the second verse by a pan whistle, a reference to Danny Elfman’s theme for Good Will Hunting theme, from which “Miss Misery” was nominated. Regardless, it likely reminded the audience of Céline Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On,” the love theme from another madman’s folly.
Restricted to two verses and the second bridge, he bows in a Beatlesque fashion and exits stage right to warm applause. (Warm but not hot — people forget that Aaliyah also performed that night, the youngest singer ever at the Oscars; she performed an anodyne song from Disney’s Anastasia, but she owned the stage, which was recognized by perhaps the ideal audience for such a feat.) Afterward, Smith walked back to center stage with Trisha Yearwood; Céline Dion (who told him, shortly before his performance, that his jitters were rocket fuel; also, that she loved his song) met them there and they all clasped hands and bowed. Madonna presented the Best Song nominees; Elliott was treated to the loudest applause, and that’s almost surely because of the figure he cut, an underground misfit dropped down to display a heart he’d painstakingly carved.
He was onstage for less than three minutes, and all of it — the showing, the contrast — was such a wonderful moment. Art and commerce, big gestures and small gestures and studied gestures, unease and acceptance. Smith’s Oscar nomination fished his label out of the debtors’ pool. Though his big-label debut was well underway when “Miss Misery” pricked Gus Van Sant’s ears, the performance was a demarcation between his old home (Portland) and his new (Los Angeles), between a cult and a fanbase, between his roots and the sky. He was Mychel Thompson, shedding his Trail Blazers jersey to grab a couple rings with the Lakers. He was Harry Nilsson, too talented and restless to avoid an audience forever. He was George Harrison and Emmit Rhodes and Hank Williams Jr. and Judee Sill. He was a drug addict and a depressive, a man who seemingly believed in little more than his musical abilities, who would follow them like a red balloon through every alley and tunnel until they led him to a song that nothing could fuck with.
Born 16 months after Céline Dion, Steven Paul Smith was a child of divorce, a typically mobile American who called Nebraska, Texas, Massachusetts, Oregon and California home in his 34 years. His musical sparks weren’t the Dicks or Black Flag: they were ’80s country and classic rock and his grandmother’s glee club. He joined bands, bursting with arrangements and ideas, kicking out the jams with abandon. The last such band was Heatmiser, a Portland concern though it was co-founded with Hampshire College classmate Neil Gust. The shows could be raucous, and the band’s tendency toward hooks tested the patience of their city’s proudly parochial scene. Never good at goodbyes, Smith recorded two solo albums while Heatmiser slowly whiffed on the brass ring.
Many artists make their big statements early, then spend their careers offering clarification. From one album to the next, Smith just got louder. His first record had four untitled songs; the last one released while he was living featured two medleys and a parenthetical title. And yet, while his sound was always impeccable, it was never polished. He didn’t improve appreciably as a vocalist. The suit just learned to fit him. With every record, he chased some idea of perfection, rarely straying past his (admittedly scant) limits as a musician, continually digging out some new variation on isolation or dependence or bemusement. Though, like Cobain, he might’ve identified with headstrong John Lennon, his facility with instruments and love of melodic filigrees puts him, as a composer, firmly in Paul McCartney’s lineage. Like the Beatles, he rapidly outgrew his provincial surroundings. Unlike the Beatles, his peers tended to view his move with suspicion. The typical indie scene is a petri dish of varying ambitions, with the fullest praise reserved for the folks living their art, whatever that means. The immediacy and intimacy of Smith’s first records created an aura that many found difficult to reconcile with his increasingly realized ambitions.
Still, in a solo career that packed five albums into fewer than six years, he managed the startling feat of twinning consistency with evolution. Shifting modes, pulling listeners away from all manner of tonal centers, deploying dozens of arresting figures that lesser lights would’ve lashed a whole song around: Smith was an untutored wizard. With the exception of the fractured, posthumous From A Basement On The Hill, he cast his spells within compact runtimes. While living, he released just one song over five minutes. So disposed toward excess in his personal life, on record he was a paragon of concision, the king of killing with quick cuts. Lyrically, he moved from the expected confessional mode (though few could match his ability to mine the personal without striking cheese) to obtuse imagery that still refracted lived experience. His songs were rarely muscular; Smith tended toward the interior throughout his career, building striking structures to house the slights and wounds and fears he held so close. The care that he lavished on form and timbre was nearly equaled with that given to metaphor, directness and rhyme.
To the credit of his audience, Smith’s suicide did not spawn a cult of demon worship. Perhaps it was his fundamental fragility — a condition that attracted and cast out friends in equal measure — that’s fended off our typical and perverse awe of illness channeled through artistry. Perhaps his death just seemed inevitable. It’d be a mistake to say that music was his solace. He was his own worst critic, striving for perfection while second-guessing any steps made in that direction. Rather, music was something that he was really fucking good at. He had a head full of figures and bridges, devastating lines and comforting assurances. His body of work stands with that of any songwriter from of his era, even if a whole, living Elliott Smith would be a gift worth erasing the whole collection. He was a man of furious talent, and he wrung as much out of it as his body allowed. What follows is an examination of Smith’s six studio sets, as well as the mandatory collection New Moon. So much was, and is, that what could have been barely deserves a thought.
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