In the brightly lit musical mainstream, songs of rage and despair tend to be noisy and corrosive. Think the blistering sonic etchings of P.O.D. and Staind. But in the velvet-lined underground, the graceful work of Oscar-nominated singer-songwriter Elliott Smith suggested there could be catharsis in restraint.
Smith — who died in L.A. on Oct. 21 at age 34, in an apparent suicide — first appeared on indie-rock fans’ radar in the early ’90s as leader of the Portland, Oregon-based Heatmiser. But he was never comfortable with the histrionics of rock & roll and made two stripped-down solo records on the side: 1994’s ”Roman Candle” (Cavity Search) and 1995’s ”Elliott Smith” (Kill Rock Stars). Their picturesque lyrics, coupled with his Nick Drake-quiet delivery, revealed him to be a vivid interpreter of emotional maladies.
Heatmiser dissolved in 1996, and Smith went on to record three more albums — 1997’s ”Either/Or” (Kill Rock Stars), 1998’s ”XO,” and 2000’s ”Figure 8” (both on DreamWorks). Fans of his music, which took on a lush, Beatlesque melodicism on the latter two CDs, include directors Gus Van Sant, who used six of his tunes in his 1997 film, ”Good Will Hunting” (”Miss Misery” earned Smith an Academy Award nomination), and Wes Anderson. In an unfortunate parallel, Anderson set a suicide scene in 2001’s The Royal Tenenbaums to ”Needle in the Hay,” a track from Elliott Smith.
Smith struggled with drug and alcohol addiction, and had spoken in interviews of a childhood clouded by physical abuse. ”He was a very intense person,” recalls Mitchell Frank, an L.A. club owner who knew Smith. ”His songs were like little bombs that he exploded.”
The singer had been working on a new CD, ”From a Basement on the Hill,” at the time of his death. Now all that remains is the disbelief of those left behind and lyrics that read like clues: ”I’m lying down, blowing smoke from my cigarette,” he sang in the characteristically evocative ”Condor Avenue,” from ”Roman Candle,” ”little whisper smoke signs that you’ll never get.” (Reporting by Jon Regardie)