Figurehead for a generation of US singer-songwriters
Thursday 23 October 2003
Steven Paul Smith (Elliott Smith), singer and songwriter: born Omaha, Nebraska 6 August 1969; died Los Angeles 21 October 2003.
When the then unknown Elliott Smith was nominated for an Oscar for his song "Miss Misery", in Gus Van Sant's film Good Will Hunting (1997), he became the unlikely figurehead for a new generation of American singer-songwriters working in the wake of Kurt Cobain's cataclysmic death. He offered a new style of deliberately oblique, prettily melodic, almost whispered introspection.
He was born in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1969, and his parents split when he was a baby. Mostly raised by his churchgoing mother in Texas, he spent a week each year in Los Angeles with his father, a one-time hippie preacher who quit his church when they insisted he wear a tie, then lost his faith in Vietnam, and became a psychiatrist. Smith remembered these visits as weird breaks from a buttoned-up life in Texas.
Though he resolutely resisted confessional interviews, he admitted to having been an angry youth. Moving to be with his father in the counter-culture enclave of Portland, Oregon, when he was 14, he scratched a living at manual jobs while beginning to perform in the city's underground clubs at night. It was here that he was seen by a fellow Portlander, Gus Van Sant, his future passport to unlooked-for glory.
Gaining a degree in Political Philosophy at the University of Massachusetts in 1991, he also released four albums with the raucous alternative rock band Heatmiser in the early Nineties - Dead Air (1993), Yellow No 5 (1994), Cop and Speeder (1995) and Mic City Sons (1996). But it was when he opted to move to New York to be utterly alone that his solo songwriting cohered.
Playing Greenwich Village clubs at night, he wrote in the daytime while watching TV or other people, deliberately keeping his lyrics distracted, impressionistic and unresolved. Lacking the loud self-pity of Cobain, or the self-obsession of early Seventies forebears like James Taylor, he was more in tune with Americans of his own time like Sparklehorse's Mark Linkous and Will Oldham, spare, surreal writers with few social or personal axes to grind. He explained his wish to vanish into his songs with reference to the painter of abstract blocks of colour Mark Rothko:
They make me think of this one big block, the one thing that keeps coming up in someone's life. They're more permanent, more universal than some particular depiction of an object. [I'd like to] make up songs that were like those paintings, songs that have dispensed with details and objects.
What made Smith stand out from his contemporaries was a simultaneous love not only for Spartan abstraction, but for the classical pop forms of the Beatles. After three increasingly strong solo albums, Roman Candle (1994), Elliott Smith (1995) and Either/Or (1997), Van Sant let him take his fragile tunefulness to the 1998 Oscars, where, a shambling figure seeming to have been snatched straight from a coffee house, he eventually lost out to Céline Dion - who, he said, was "very nice".
The fairy tale continued when Smith was signed to Steven Spielberg's DreamWorks label, and his commercial breakthrough was confidently predicted. XO, later in 1998 (during which all four albums gained their first UK release), and Figure 8 (2000) certainly gained in confidence and musical sophistication.
But, despite minor UK hits, radio programmers never found a place for his amorphous delicacy. He never quite went beyond a devoted cult following, which suited his work's introverted honesty, and small-scale emotion. A sixth solo album, From a Basement to the Hill, was being recorded at the time of his apparent suicide.
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