There's a scene in Wes Anderson's off-center family portrait, The Royal Tenenbaums, in which shell-shocked former tennis star Richie Tenenbaum (played by Luke Wilson) attempts suicide to an Elliott Smith tune. As Smith's spare, stinging "Needle in the Hay" plays in the background, Richie slices at his Brillo beard, his hair, and then his wrists. Though Richie is eventually revived, the scene has become sadly prophetic for the man whose papier-mâché voice provided its grim soundtrack.
Last Tuesday, at the age of 34, Elliott Smith was found dead in his Los Angeles apartment, of an apparent suicide. The manner in which he took his life -- a self-inflicted knife wound -- may have been shocking, but the act itself was much less so. Smith had a history of drug abuse, to which he alluded in songs such as "The White Lady Loves You More." Though he sobered up for a while, he had long been a caricature of gloom, his increasingly gaunt frame and disjointed live shows fueling rumors that he was using again.
None of this makes Smith's death any easier to accept. His sometimes brutal, sometimes beatific songs were so affecting because they came from a man in whose image it was easy to see oneself. With a topographical complexion, oily hair, and thrift-store aesthetic, Smith was a mass of insecurities, the ugly-duckling-done-good who made the listener's own awkwardness a little easier to come to terms with. His voice was a whisper that quivered like a drunk's hands. That something as wavering as Smith's frail inflections could stir something as lasting as heartache was his greatest hallmark. The guy could make wood emote.
In just under a decade, Smith's solo career yielded a number of enduring works. His 1994 debut, Roman Candle, and its self-titled follow-up were barren and brittle, lo-fi efforts with a dash of vinegar. The recordings were raw, the emotions rawer still. Smith made the records while he was a member of roughshod Portland, Oregon indie rockers Heatmiser. His albums were as understated as Heatmiser's were amplified.
Heatmiser disbanded in 1996. Smith began to blossom. His finest hour came with his third LP, 1997's Either/Or. Merging Smith's quiet, contemplative songs with a fattened sound, Either/Or is an album of delicate melodies and cauterized love, ranking alongside Leonard Cohen's Songs of Love and Hate as a monument to melancholy.
Around this time, Smith caught the ear of indie filmmaker Gus Van Zant, who enlisted him for the Good Will Hunting soundtrack. It was Smith's big break: The bristling track "Miss Misery" was nominated for an Academy Award, and Smith performed at the Oscars -- where he appeared to be terrified. Smith lost the Oscar to Celine Dion, but won a major-label deal with Dreamworks, which released his most popular album, X/O, in 1998. A much more elaborate effort than Smith had previously been known for, X/O featured sweeping arrangements fleshed out by strings and horns; sadness seldom sounded so complete. Smith's final record, 2000's Figure 8, was also his most rock-oriented LP, working shards of snarling guitar and grandiose, Pet Sounds-worthy compositions in with his plaintive balladry.
At the time of his death, Smith was still toiling away on Figure 8's follow-up, From a Basement on the Hill, the release date for which has been scuttled on numerous occasions over the past two years. His last release was the "Pretty (Ugly Before)" 7-inch issued in August by the Seattle label Suicide Squeeze.
Throughout his career, Smith met with as much criticism as acclaim. He was lampooned as a coffeehouse cliché, misery's lapdog. The barbs weren't entirely unjustified: At times, Smith would literally hiss his words, and his singing could be wildly overwrought. But his very visible flaws were also the basis of his appeal. He was an unabashed asshole from time to time, but in acknowledging his own shortcomings, Smith made it easier for us to do the same.
"I'm going out now like a baby, a naive unsatisfied baby," Smith foretold on Either/Or's "2:45 am." "Grabbing onto whatever's around/For the soaring high or the crushing down."
Too bad it turned out to be the latter.
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