Your mileage with Elliott Smith likely depends upon when in your life you first heard him. It sure feels like the people who first got into him in their teens – or even their early 20s – have a much greater desire for him to be appreciated as one of the great songwriters of his generation than the rest of us do. Though I appreciate his aesthetic, especially on such an early record, I cannot for the life of me come around to his songs to the extent that I am willing to rave about him like so many of my friends have over the years. (Of course, I first listened to him in my 30s…)
Smith has a strong sense of melody, such a strong sense that I remember when I first encountered his more polished later records I was kind of mystified about his reputation as a “lo fi” cult figure because the songs struck me as sooooo catchy. Even at this early stage, they are catchy.
The big appeal for many (most?) is Smith’s lyrics, which are highly introspective, the kind of lyrics which are often really appealing to teenagers and young adults more than older people. (This is likely where I get stuck.) I think he’s a decent lyricist but I have yet to hear a lyric of his that really, really connects to me like my favourite songwriters, again that’s probably the age thing.
But what I appreciate about this record is, even though Smith is already using a ton of overdubs, his arrangements feel raw and unpolished. His later records are quite polished and that often leads to incongruity between the lyrics and the music. But here his voice is frail, his multiple guitars feel unassured and sometimes feel like maybe they were first takes, and the other instruments never sound too competent. That is to say, though this is a one-man-band record, it’s not a Stevie Wonder or Paul McCartney one-man-band record.
Anyway, I can understand why people felt like this was a big deal when it came out – it’s a decent set of songs that is raw enough to feel like you’ve found someone who will never blowup yet it’s not raw enough to be off-putting like the actual lo fi music being made at the time.