“I’ve always felt like this record is underappreciated,” says Kill Rock Stars founder Slim Moon. “A lot of people overlook Elliott’s first two records—they think of them as a prelude to the bigger albums that followed—but when you go back, you discover they’re really great. This is Elliott’s most fragile and delicate music, and we wanted to honor that with a special and beautiful package.”
When Elliott Smith was released in July 1995, it was so dramatically out-of-step with the later stages of grunge—and with the indie rock and Riot Grrl sounds associated with the Kill Rock Stars label—that it was completely ignored by the press. But other artists started picking up on Smith’s remarkable gifts. Fugazi and the Beastie Boys mentioned the record in interviews, and then folks like John Doe and Sebadoh took Smith out on tour. The forces were set in motion that led to his next release, 1997’s Either/Or, being embraced as one of the landmark albums of the decade.
Seventeen years after his death, the impact of Elliott Smith’s music continues to expand. He has been championed, covered, and sampled by artists from Billie Eilish to Pearl Jam to Frank Ocean. His fearless, solemn sound reverberates in the work of the National, Phoebe Bridgers, and Bon Iver. His songs have shown up in countless movie and television soundtracks, he has inspired at least four tribute albums, and a recent Forbes magazine survey in which seventy musicians named their favorite singer/songwriter albums of all time saw more mentions of Smith than any other artist.
Yet there are still aspects of Smith’s catalogue that remain insufficiently explored. To commemorate the twenty-fifth anniversary of his self-titled second solo album, on August 28th, 2020 Kill Rock Stars is releasing a deluxe package, which includes a revelatory new remastering of the original record; a 52-page coffee table book with handwritten lyrics, reminiscences from Smith’s friends and colleagues about his life at the time he was writing and recording this album, and two dozen rare and previously unseen photographs from the era by JJ Gonson, who shot the image on the album’s cover (the original photo that became the cover is also seen here for the first time); and a bonus disc chronicling a historic live performance by Smith as the album was taking shape.
For this release, producer/engineer Larry Crane, the official archivist for the Smith family, dug through files, reels, cassettes, and DAT tapes to find the closest sources to the original, first-generation mix downs. “On the original CD release, ‘Needle in the Hay’ has a ton of subsonic low-end thuds that must have come from bumps to mic stands or such,” he says. “Removing extraneous crud like that helps the song sound better! Some songs, like ‘Good to Go’ and ‘Satellite,’ really suffered from rough mixing and lack of clarity, so I attempted to give those songs a better presentation—to bring them to life a bit more clearly.”
This package also includes the earliest known recording of Smith performing as a solo act, from September 17, 1994 at Portland’s café and “art salon” Umbra Penumbra. Casey Crynes provided a high-quality cassette of the ten-song set, and after determining the make and model of the machine it was initially recorded on, Crane rented the same recorder. “After hours and hours of different transfers, and figuring out tape speed and levels,” he says, “I spent days carefully cleaning up the audio and getting the songs ready for mastering. There are fan-traded MP3s out there of this show, but when people hear what I was able to extract from this original tape, they’ll be shocked.”
The Elliott Smith album was made during a wildly productive few months for the singer/songwriter. In 1994, his band, Heatmiser, recorded and released the Yellow No.2 EP and their second album, Cop and Speeder. Elliott’s first solo album, Roman Candle, was released in July 1994. The initial recording sessions for Elliott Smith were held in September 1994, and “Needle in the Hay” (which would become the album’s opening track and one of Smith’s signature songs) came out as a seven-inch single in January 1995. He then returned to finish the album in January and February.
Gonson recalls this as a time when Smith was grappling with his musical identity. “He was struggling with the music he wanted to make and the music he was making, and it was unfortunate that he didn’t feel he could do both,” she says. “So he was dealing with this wrestling match between the rock band and the personal, quiet stuff. He made it clear that he needed to be in a quiet, private space and figure out these dividing lines.”
Smith would express frustration at the expectations and clichés that came with working in different musical styles. “If you play acoustic guitar you're the depressed, sensitive guy,” he once said. “But, y'know, when I was in a post-punk band, I was the angry, screamer guy.
The Umbra Penumbra show gives a sense of the contrast between Smith’s live and studio approaches. “He was goofier on stage, making jokes and messing with his own words,” says Gonson. “I got to watch these songs go through different versions. He worked the words very carefully—he was very admiring of Joni Mitchell and how she wrote. So it was fun, you’d hear a song and then it would change.” As Smith began experimenting with different guitar tunings and unconventional chord changes, Moon notes that “this songwriting uses a lot of tricks you can only get away with playing solo.”
What emerged from this challenging creative evolution was a set of songs with the intimacy and intensity of an acoustic-based singer-songwriter and the gut-punch power of a rocker. Elliott Smith remains, all these years later, almost too emotionally bare to listen to. “Up was the only way to go from that self-titled record that I made,” Smith said. “I mean, I personally can't get more dark than that.”
The lyrics are riddled with images of and references to depression and addiction—the Rolling Stone Album Guide described it as “some of the loveliest songs about the dissolution of the soul ever written”—yet Smith was careful to indicate that songs like “Needle in the Hay” and “The White Lady Loves You More” are not intended as pure autobiography. “They're songs,” he said. “It's not a diary. Not a diary at all.”
In fact, as documented by the photos in this new package, his friends remember Smith’s joy and connection to the creative community in Portland, his home at the time. “He was very funny, very silly,” says Gonson. “That’s always what I think of first—that goofy, puppy dog, young man energy. There’s a lot of joy in these pictures, of living in a wonderful place full of wonderful people.”
Though Elliott Smith is generally thought of as a simple solo album, it actually extends the songwriting and arrangements of Roman Candle in crucial ways. Smith added drums and additional guitars on multiple tracks, the unforgettable harmonica part on “Alphabet Town,” and even played the cello on “The White Lady Loves You More.” His Heatmiser bandmate Neil Gust plays guitar on “Single File” and Rebecca Gates of the Spinanes sang back-up on “St. Ides Heaven” (“He was so focused on how he wanted things to sound,” she recalled years later).
“This has always been my favorite record,” says Moon. “I know people tend to like a band’s period when we first fall in love with them, and this is the Elliott Smith I first discovered. But I also think the greatest thing in the world is someone who can deliver with just voice, an instrument, and songs. It’s the hardest thing to do, and the most engaging when it’s done well.”
A few years after Elliott Smith was released, the singer himself looked back on the album that in many ways laid the groundwork for his image and his triumphant, ultimately tragic career. “I think that record gave me a reputation for being a really dark, depressed person,” he said, “but I think I'm just about as happy as all the other people I know. Which is occasionally.”