Elliott Smith died ten years ago yesterday (Oct 21, 2003). I hadn’t listened to his music in quite a while, though played through a number of his tracks last night. They hold up — and pretty promptly sent me back a decade. Pitchfork has created a well-designed, well-written, thorough ‘oral history’ of his music.
What follows is not an oral history of his life, but of his music; specifically, his solo career. The lines between life and music are tangled, of course, in ways that aren’t neatly prizable, and darker stories eventually creep into the frame at the edges. But the arc traced here begins with the emergence of That Voice: the flowering of his talent, the development of the intimate, inscrutable folk-pop he would mine for the rest of his career. That discovery dovetails with the dissolution of his first band, the loud-rocking Heatmiser. In some ways the development of the former triggered the latter. The story told here begins at this hinge point, as Smith begins exploring the possibilities of his fiercely intimate four-track solo recordings that would pull him away from Heatmiser and, eventually, into the national spotlight.
For those who knew him personally, the task of speaking for Elliott Smith wavers between privilege and burden. Many of the 18 people who spoke to me—bandmates, producers, managers, friends—emerged hesitantly, stepping gingerly over their own profound misgivings, issuing grave caveats. They’d been burned before, they warned me. They swore they’d never speak again. The story of their self-imposed silence, and their individual choices to break it or hold it, runs in powerful counterpoint to Smith’s own story. Some of the singer’s closest associates have simply declined to go on record: Having been prodded multiple times, they have understandably snapped shut. Some are speaking now for the first time. The combination of profound ambivalence and fierce conviction in their voices, as they opened themselves up, was chastening.
The Atlantic’s got a nice list of remembrances, some of which are new or new to the internet.