The day that I discovered Elliott Smith was on October 21, 2003. Not coincidentally, that was the day he died. As a fresh-faced 18-year-old with an emerging taste for indie rock, Smith hadn’t yet reached my radar when the internet was flooded with sadness over his death. With both close friends and musicians I admired all pouring in tributes to this man, I felt like I had been missing out on some truly special music. That turned out to be very much the case, as upon my first listen to his 1994 album “Roman Candle” I was instantly enchanted by this scrappy folk singer and his acoustic guitar. And while that record served as my proper introduction to Elliott Smith, I didn’t fall head over heels for the guy’s music until “XO” reached my ears. Like a small brush fire reaching a massive pool of gasoline, an obsession formed, made all the more sadder that Smith wasn’t around to keep making more amazing music. After releasing a posthumous album he was working on prior to his death along with a collection of b-sides, Kill Rock Stars is now putting out “An Introduction To…” in lieu of what might otherwise be called a “greatest hits collection”. If you’re younger or simply just very late to the party, this is expected to be your easy guide into the world of Elliott Smith.
Of course if “An Introduction To…” were a greatest hits set, there would be a bunch of songs from Smith’s two most popular records, “XO” and “Figure 8”. In the end, there’s only one song from “XO” and nothing from “Figure 8”, and presumably that’s because Kill Rock Stars is putting out this collection and those two big records weren’t released on the label. Thankfully 5 of the 15 tracks come from the also-amazing “Either/Or”, and the rest pretty much skip around his discography, hitting most every mark, however briefly. As an introduction like it claims, this provides a well-rounded view of Smith’s career, with the hope that the individual tracks you gravitate towards most are the records you should seek out first. If they really wanted to get “introductory”, they could have limited the track listing to Smith’s first 3-4 albums, or at the very least ordered everything sequentially. Does the jumbled order of the songs make that much of a difference in the end? Not really as the sound and songwriting stays pretty consistent throughout, but it would be interesting to hear the slight pieces of progression over time. If you buy digital then you can order the tracks any way you like, too.
Long-time fans of Elliott Smith may be wondering just how valuable a record like “An Introduction To…” would be in their collection. Like Jeff Buckley or Nirvana, this being the third posthumous Smith release could come off as an attempt to squeeze more money out of a corpse. Some might take that viewpoint, but given the title and absence of unreleased material, this really does seem designed for either a younger generation that hasn’t heard of Elliott Smith or people that always admired the guy from afar but never really got into his stuff. Smith’s mostly sad, acoustic folk songs are tempered back a bit to make room for some (but not all) of his poppier stuff that’s a little easier to like while still running deep with meaning. It’s the unique approach he took to making his songs sound multi-layered full despite a wispy, almost whispered singing voice and a lone acoustic guitar. It’s the heartfelt and heartbreaking words he wrote and the impact they can have on our own personal struggles, made all the more tragic by the his own life and untimely death.
For that angst-filled or depressed teenager that’s looking for a kindred spirit, getting an introduction to Elliott Smith right now could be just what the music doctor ordered. For the stunted adult, trying to find exactly where he or she fits into this crazy world of ours, here’s someone who understands you. And if you discovered the guy awhile back but his music didn’t click with you then, maybe now’s a good time to give it a second listen. This is an exceptional and smart collection of songs, even if it is missing a handful of what might be called “key” tracks. In some ways that’s for the better, because once you inevitably move on and venture deeper into Smith’s catalogue, the discovery of such additional brilliance will be a welcome surprise. What won’t be a surprise though is how this all ends, with just a limited amount of material to digest and the constant knowledge that there won’t be any more. Like the hundreds upon thousands of artists we discover just a little too late, ultimately we can just be grateful to have had these moments and found meaning in these songs that we can listen to and share with others for the rest of our lives. We may know how this story ultimately ends, but the individual journey we take getting there is what makes it so immensely worthwhile. If you’re just now discovering Elliott Smith, congratulations, there’s an amazing, possibly life-changing collection of songs just waiting and begging to reach your ears.