The blunt tragedy of Elliott Smith’s 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 Smith’s case he meant every word. Or at least that’s at how in hindsight we interpreted his music; Elliott himself once candidly said “I'm not a tortured artist, and there's nothing really wrong with me. I just had a bad time for awhile.” 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 Smith’s 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. Smith’s quiet, borderline whispered vocals and tense finger picks are enticing. Roman Candle differs completely from the rest of Smith’s back catalogue, perhaps out of necessity the records are closer to folk then his beloved Pop; at the same time these are some of Smith’s most confessional and intense songs. Opening with ‘Roman Candle’ an angsty song that seems to address Elliott’s uneasy relationship with his stepfather “I want to hurt him / I want to give him pain / I’m a roman candle / my head is full of flames”; 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 ‘No Confidence Man’ also addresses the relationship. ‘Condor Ave.’ deals with a break up, again in most songwriters hands the falling apart of a relationship can become a cliché ridden mess, Smith’s 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, ‘Condor Ave.’ was written back when Smith was in his mid teens, and perhaps this explains the youthful theme of the song. Insecurities are prevalent throughout ‘No Name #1’; 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. ‘No Name #2’ is a fine little song, you can hear Smith’s 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 “concrete hands picked up the telephone ring / do you know who's you're talking to? / no, and i don't care who”. The one critique you might have with Roman Candle, and perhaps this could be levelled at Smith’s whole back catalogue is that sometimes the songs dwell too much in the realm of self pity, to the point they almost becomes existential. ‘No Name #3’ 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. ‘Drive All Over Town’ 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 ‘No Name #4’ is a shot of caffeine, followed by a crafty cigarette. The song tells the story about mother and son escaping an abusive relationship “once we got back inside / with one ear to the ground / I was ready to hide / 'cos I don't know who's around”. The surprise of the electric guitar lick that breaks out in ‘Last Call’ 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 “the clap of the fading out sound of your shoes / made him wonder who he thought that he knew”. Out of place and out of line ‘Last Call’ 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 ‘Kiwi Maddog 20/20’. Coming in at little over thirty minutes Roman Candle is almost the perfect introduction to Elliott Smith. The briefness and fiery urgency doesn’t 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.