Seminal is a word that’s thrown around entirely too much by lazy music critics who need to describe an album that’s both sublimely wonderful and somehow too difficult and challenging for mass acceptance. But, if the shoe fits, sometimes it’s best to lace it up, give it a spit shine, and dance about the architecture, leaving haphazard scuffmarks in clicks and drags across the hardwood.
And in the case of Elliott Smith’s Roman Candle, it seems that the shoe is custom-made, tailored to the curvature and arch-height of the album’s musical foot, to stretch the metaphor to its absolute limits.
Elliott Smith’s story is tragic, sure, but it is nigh on impossible to view his catalogue without seeing it through the lens of his untimely death. He’s joined that pantheon of important musical figures cut down at their prime, silenced forever, except perhaps for the summer shindigs at that Great Bandstand In The Sky (where, if the adage is accurate, they must have “a hell of a band”).
All too often, it seems, Smith’s story is mixed up unfairly with that of fellow singer-songwriter Jeff Buckley because of the shared nature of both their approximate fan base and the similarly mysterious natures of their premature deaths. Musically – indeed, artistically – the two could not be more different. Buckley shined with tenor bravado; Smith trembled with shakily earthen whisperings.
But long before Smith fell to those two fateful and as yet inexplicable knife wounds to the chest, he began his body of work with an unassuming, whisper-sung, lo-fi gem, which emerged from the basement of then girlfriend JJ Gonson’s Portland, Oregon home like an exquisitely symmetrical, flame-coloured monarch from the most unlikely of ungainly, paper-thin cocoons.
After Smith’s hours of wiling away, hunched over a borrowed four-track tape recorder, Roman Candle was finished, and divided as it was onto cassette tapes, complete with intrusive tape-hiss and shrill fret squeaks from Smith’s acoustic guitar (the only instrument for much of the album, itself borrowed from a friend), it was what it would become: the labour of love of a gifted songwriter, singing for himself.
In 1994, Gonson, who also managed Smith’s full-time band Heatmiser (who would break up in 1996 after much contention with Smith’s solo career), prodded and eventually convinced Smith to submit his latest batch of recordings to Portland-based Cavity Search Records. Smith only expected a seven-inch single to come of the transaction, but label owner Christopher Cooper immediately requested the entire album for release (it would be released in 1998 by Domino Records in the UK). Smith, reluctant as always, agreed, and these nine home recordings saw light, unaltered from their original form.
A bit of historical speculation is needed to understand the impact of the album’s release. Had the tapes been filed away privately as they were intended, the 1994 musical landscape, knee-deep as it was in grunge and trying as it was to shake the last vestiges of the previous decade’s hair-metal hangover (by doing more of the same, only dirtier), would have missed a great work of understated genius. Smith, in singing for himself, struck a chord with a displaced generation, and his work was infinitely relatable to a certain sad and noise-weary demographic.
Smith commented on his precarious position in his grunge-obsessed time and place in a 1998 interview for Magnet Magazine: “The idea of playing (my music) for people didn’t occur to me… because at the time it was the Northwest – Mudhoney and Nirvana – and going out to play an acoustic show was like crawling out on a limb and begging for it to be sawed off.”
And now, 16 years later (and nearly seven years after Smith’s death), his inauspicious first album deserves another look. It’s been cleaned up and remastered by Larry Crane, Smith’s archivist and it’s due out on Domino Records (Kill Rock Stars in the US) 4 May 2010.
On the official Elliott Smith website, Crane explains his approach, saying, “The intention that I had was to make the album more listenable.” No cause for alarm, though. While fret squeaks and hard consonants have been minimised, for better or worse, tape hiss still coats everything in a warm and vaguely nostalgic veneer. Crane adds, “Please note that none of this album is ‘remixed’ from the master tapes – it is still composed of the mixes Elliott created himself.”
The album’s remastered version is not a revelation in and of itself; this is not The Beatles or Jimi Hendrix (both of whom have recently received remastering facelifts). It is still, in essence and in presentation, the nearly singular labouring of a man wrestling with his demons, and doing so on cassette tape.
But it’s the sort of album – seminal really is the most fitting adjective, trite as it may be – that doesn’t need a whole lot of polish and computerised noise correction. In its original version, it was just homely enough to be taken as startlingly beautiful in the right light. And so it remains. Crane deserves hearty thanks for not attempting to make the album sound modern or artificially palatable. Roman Candle is scruffy and impossibly rough around the edges, and that lo-fi charm remains its primary point of contact with the listener.
To label Elliott Smith a torchbearer for those twentysomethings who latched onto his music – even before his legacy took its tragic final turn – would be to paint him unfairly as a martyr, and to do so would be to commoditise him and to package him in easily processed bits for the masses. But, the album’s title suggests that just this sort of categorisation is not too far off the mark.
After all, what is a Roman candle but a spot of brilliance, of coloured flame rocketing skyward, in the darkness of an otherwise only adequately enjoyable evening? On the album’s title track, Smith sings, “I’m a roman candle. My head is full of flames. I’m hallucinating.” The metaphor holds, even if the album’s intentions of introversion subvert its resonance. We couldn’t have known it then, but Smith’s career, brief as it was, would become something of a Roman candle, illuminating a fringe aesthetic and re-channelling the direction of alternative music in a decade of noise.
Elliott Smith’s Roman Candle is reissued through Domino on 5th April 2010.