It’s been 12 years since Elliott Smith passed away and 20 years since the album Elliott Smith was released. I was 16 and had only been listening to his music for a few months when I first heard the album. A woman named Amity (like the song on Smith’s X/O) shared his music with me, giving me her personal copy of Elliott Smith to burn for myself. I listened to it every day walking to school and hummed every track in my head sitting through Algebra and Chemistry. There is an intimacy to the album that makes it feel as if it is just you and him sitting in a dark cafe, sipping coffees and talking about the first girl that broke your heart.

By 1995, Smith had released the solo album Roman Candle and three albums with his college band Heatmiser. But Smith’s solo career didn’t really get its start until he met Mary Lou Lord in the fall of 1994 at Seattle’s Velvet Elvis Arts Lounge. Folk music was well-established, and lots of guys with acoustic guitars were playing the venue, but Smith was something different. Lord fell in love with his guitar and facilitated his signing to Kill Rock Stars, the Seattle label that helped make the Northwest sound of the ‘90s famous.

The first and only single from the album, “Needle in the Hay,” was released in January 1995 and nine months later the full length came out. Though it was released on a fairly well-known label at the time and (unlike Roman Candle) was promoted heavily, the album didn’t garner major attention and hardly anyone reviewed it. Smith continued to tour and play to small crowds and he remained almost unknown, which is probably all the same to someone who was notoriously shy around new people and nervous when he played shows. If you go back and watch some of his live sets (a good number of which are on YouTube), you can see him squirming in his seat and cracking jokes to break the tension.

The album was recorded almost entirely by Smith, with guest vocals by Rebecca Gates on “St. Ides Heaven” and Heatmiser guitarist Neil Gust on “Single File.” It would become in many ways a departure from the singer-songwriter formula. Elliott Smith is a musically intricate album that signals the tones and complexities that would define his later career. Smith’s guitar playing is awe-inspiring; he wraps chords around melodies and somehow pulls off flawless arpeggios while singing. The quick, jangly “Southern Bell” features a playful melody running throughout quickly strummed chords, but on songs like “Coming Up Roses,” Smith delivers a pop feel with upbeat riffs and harmonies.

Elliott Smith, the album and the singer, is inextricably associated with depression. Though there is some controversy surrounding his death, it is believed that he committed suicide by stabbing himself twice in the chest. Smith himself, years after the release of his self-titled album, admitted that he didn’t want to be typecast by such somber music.

The fact remains that his fine 1995 album is rather depressing. Its songs are about feeling lost or insignificant, about love and heartbreak and about drug use. Shaky and emotionally fragile, the album is the living, breathing work of someone on the edge. It was the kind of edge felt by many young people in the mid-’90s, an edge that gave rise to the not-giving-a-fuck attitude of grunge and too-sad-to-care ethos of shoegaze. But even though later in his life he would eventually turn to drugs and alcohol, Smith was not under the influence of either when he made this

Moreover, this is where he becomes the artist that we know today. It is a personal, emotionally deep production that is wholly unique. Part of its beauty is it was never over-hyped. Its legacy is in its ability to stay humble, like the man himself.

It’s hard to imagine how we would view it had Smith not committed suicide in 2003, and maybe that’s a moot question. Of course a musician’s career shifts and turns as they reinvent themselves on each album, but there is always something that remains at the core. Elliott Smith is the foundation upon which the rest of his career was built. Quiet and unassuming, sad and wholly original — you know Smith as soon as he plays a single note. More than anything, it is intimate conversation with a sorrow-filled soul and an expansive heart.

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