“So help yourself to this bitter pill or somebody else will,” Elliott Smith quips on “Single File,” from his eponymous second album. Released in 1995, the record established Smith’s sound and vocabulary—dark subject matter, acoustic guitars, multitracked extended vocals, and chord changes so gorgeous that you almost forget you’re listening to tales of extreme pain and self-destruction.
In the years that followed, Smith would show himself seemingly incapable of writing a mediocre song. He turned out masterpiece after masterpiece, most of them about how he couldn’t take it anymore. His tragic death shouldn’t have surprised anyone truly listening, but that didn’t make it any easier to accept.
In celebration of the album’s 25th anniversary, Kill Rock Stars has reissued Elliott Smith with enhanced sound, an evocative photo spread and remembrances from Smith’s friends, and a live recording at Portland’s Umbra Penumbra. The new remix is so luminous, 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, say, Kurt Cobain. Beauty finds its way through.
People were perfectly capable of making an album of an acoustic guitar and vocals sound good in 1995. But the new mixes are shockingly vivid. You can smell the plaid flannel. The highs are higher, the lows are lower, and the crisis of Elliott Smith has been restored. Before you are too seduced, recall that any time he seems remotely sentimental, he isn’t. The song with the most romantic title—“The White Lady Loves You More”—is really about cocaine. “Clementine” sounds tender, but it concerns alcohol and regret, riffing on a nineteenth-century song about death.
The album’s best-known track is the opiate-themed “Needle in the Hay,” which was later used by Wes Anderson in 2001’s The Royal Tenenbaums, playing over a scene in which Luke Wilson cuts his wrists. The relentless chords are jittery, waiting to be anesthetized: “I’m taking the cure so I can be quiet wherever I want,” Smith sings. On every track, no matter how dark, the guitar chords caress, and his voice is a salve, of sorts—soothing, yet undeniably real.
Smith grew up in Dallas with an abusive stepfather, graduated from Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., then was off to small gigs in Portland and bigger ones in New York and Los Angeles, where he settled in 1999. On his final album, 2000’s Figure 8, he paid tribute to the City of Angels on “L.A.,” singing, “L.A./Morning had to come/I’d be walking in the sun/Living in the day/Last night I was about to throw it all away.”
He did just that on October 21, 2003. After long struggling with heroin and crack, Smith was two months sober when he allegedly stabbed himself in the chest in the Silver Lake home he shared with his girlfriend, Jennifer Chiba. Chiba, the only witness, claimed he wasn’t a casualty of drugs but of sobriety.
“He died in a valiant attempt to live a healthy life,” she said in an interview, noting that no illicit substances were found in his system. “Anyone who understands drug abuse knows that you use drugs to hide from your past or sedate yourself from strong, overwhelming feelings. So when you’re newly clean and coming off the medications that have been masking all those feelings, that’s when you’re the most vulnerable.”
Smith gave his last concert, in Salt Lake City, less than a month before his death. His final song was a cover of “Long, Long, Long,” a sublimely morose George Harrison song about eternity, from the White Album. In an amateur video of the show, Smith sings the final lines: “You know that I need you/Ooh I loved you,” and the crowd applauds. He seems happy for a moment, but then the show is over, and, all too soon, he is gone.
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