Classic Album: Elliott Smith - Roman Candle
The blunt tragedy of Elliott Smithâs untimely end hangs heavy over his music. Unfortunately there are many figures throughout music history whose sudden deaths have given their music a despairing, sombre feel, one immediately thinks of Nick Drake. The accusation thrown at most heartfelt troubadours is do they mean it? In Smithâs case he meant every word. Or at least thatâs at how in hindsight we interpreted his music; Elliott himself once candidly said âI'm not a tortured ... (continued)
The blunt tragedy of Elliott Smithâs untimely end hangs heavy over his music. Unfortunately there are many figures throughout music history whose sudden deaths have given their music a despairing, sombre feel, one immediately thinks of Nick Drake. The accusation thrown at most heartfelt troubadours is do they mean it? In Smithâs case he meant every word. Or at least thatâs at how in hindsight we interpreted his music; Elliott himself once candidly said âI'm not a tortured artist, and there's nothing really wrong with me. I just had a bad time for awhile.â Tentative and unsure of its self Roman Candle is not a confident debut. Released back in 1994 when Smith was still an active member of Heatmiser, the songs that make up Roman Candle were recorded without bold intentions. Distinctly Lo-fi, put together in the basement of then girlfriend and Heatmiser manager JJ Gonson on a battered 4 track recorder. There were no expectations for the recordings to make up an album, let alone launch a solo career. So much so that Smith was quite content to put together a respectable seven inch record. Gonson mailed a copy of the basement recordings to Cavity Search Records, to Smithâs surprise the label responded enthusiastically and requested to put out the recordings as an album. Roman Candle captures a man timid, a songwriter who had blended in with a band, his own artistic views lost in the pack, his secrets still stored. There is a strange shyness; the feelings captured on this album are honest yet humble. Smithâs quiet, borderline whispered vocals and tense finger picks are enticing. Roman Candle differs completely from the rest of Smithâs back catalogue, perhaps out of necessity the records are closer to folk then his beloved Pop; at the same time these are some of Smithâs most confessional and intense songs. Opening with âRoman Candleâ an angsty song that seems to address Elliottâs uneasy relationship with his stepfather âI want to hurt him / I want to give him pain / Iâm a roman candle / my head is full of flamesâ; the wish to harm conflicts with the vulnerability, the pale acoustic guitar that wavers like a dying flame; another song recording during the Roman Candle sessions âNo Confidence Manâ also addresses the relationship. âCondor Ave.â deals with a break up, again in most songwriters hands the falling apart of a relationship can become a clichÃ© ridden mess, Smithâs vocals possess an endearing naivety, whilst his finger picking resembles a stuttering foal fresh from the womb. Smith was a big fan of reworking old material, âCondor Ave.â was written back when Smith was in his mid teens, and perhaps this explains the youthful theme of the song. Insecurities are prevalent throughout âNo Name #1â; again the song is about a girl, a familiar tale of going the extra mile only to end with holes in your boots. There is less moping about, the guitars are crisper, the recording slightly more defined; there is a hint that the sun might just be breaking through the cloud. âNo Name #2â is a fine little song, you can hear Smithâs clumsy fingers sliding along the guitar strings like a young lover fiddling with a bra strap for the first time. The ditzy harmonica is well suited, though seldom used by Smith, it fleshes out the track. Again lyrically the song is relatable, Smith again providing to be adept at playing the storyteller âconcrete hands picked up the telephone ring / do you know who's you're talking to? / no, and i don't care whoâ. The one critique you might have with Roman Candle, and perhaps this could be levelled at Smithâs whole back catalogue is that sometimes the songs dwell too much in the realm of self pity, to the point they almost becomes existential. âNo Name #3â is a depiction of solitude, as the previous track talks about killing time, this one talks about wishing away the day and welcoming the blanket of night. Despite the mood, the lightness of the chords make you feel like you are floating in the middle of a lake aboard a small rowing boat, carefree and adrift. âDrive All Over Townâ is a reactionary song, the story of a man who has been cheated on, deciding to track down his old girlfriend after a fight. One of the more up-tempo songs on Roman Candle âNo Name #4â is a shot of caffeine, followed by a crafty cigarette. The song tells the story about mother and son escaping an abusive relationship âonce we got back inside / with one ear to the ground / I was ready to hide / 'cos I don't know who's aroundâ. The surprise of the electric guitar lick that breaks out in âLast Callâ is palpable, beginning with a simple, minimal acoustic line before this unexpected and in the quiet context of the rest of the album, an electric explosion, the track maintains lyrical brilliance âthe clap of the fading out sound of your shoes / made him wonder who he thought that he knewâ. Out of place and out of line âLast Callâ sticks out like a sore thumb. It makes sense there after to end the album with a soothing instrumental titled after a rather nice glass of fortified wine âKiwi Maddog 20/20â. Coming in at little over thirty minutes Roman Candle is almost the perfect introduction to Elliott Smith. The briefness and fiery urgency doesnât tax the listener, it is not long enough to engulf them in a wave of melancholy. The album is humble and somewhat apologetic veering from autobiographical to embellished narratives. The acoustic layering throughout the record proves surprising depths in sound despite the album recorded with the bare basics. Undeniably Roman Candle is a thoroughly impressive accidental debut.
Elliott SmithRoman CandleClassic Album