So! Why does An Introduction to Elliott Smith exist? How does it handle the barely evitable “reissue, repackage” greasestains?
First question first, in a roundabout way. I came shamefully late to the music of Elliott Smith. At one point, I dismissed him thoughtlessly. I knew he contributed a few Beatle pop tunes to a few overrated Hollywood movies. I knew he was born in Omaha. I knew the simpering cardigan jockeys at my college radio station were big, big fans. I could never begin to know.
I’d like to say his death in 2003 didn’t help get my attention, but I’d be a filthy liar. Smith’s death in Los Angeles was, for my money, the single most dramatic, most bizarre exit in rock history. After long bouts of alcoholism and junkiedom and a spat with his equally FUBARed girlfriend, he … well, read it again for yourself. Don’t some of the most intense souls in the world spend a lifetime preparing for this sort of thing? It didn’t sink in until a friend dressed for Halloween as Smith’s corpse. Actually, I didn’t really get it until, while rummaging a record store, I heard “Easy Way Out,” from Smith’s not-particularly-well-loved major-label album Figure 8, a strong deep cut that, in its new context, stunned me. The contrast between the man’s gentle, humanistic chime-pop and his overwhelming psychological violence hit me like a mack truck, and I started collecting his music. Having drunkenly alienated most of the Elliott fans I knew at the time (seriously, at one point, I argued that American Analog Set, of all things, was a superior alternative), I had no quick introduction. I had to fumble around.
And that’s why this exists. Because Smith’s life and music will fascinate people years down the line, and they’ll have an easy place to start, and they shouldn’t go without simply because they don’t have time to fumble around. Nothing wrong with that, as such.
However… this is one sloppy compilation. It contains only one rarity, a not-revelatory demo version of “Miss Misery” (a highlight of his mom-likes-it-too Hollywood work). It contains almost no songs that his fans don’t uniformly consider classics. It leans heavily on the independently released standard favorite Either/Or, barely touching his earlier work (Heatmiser, anyone?), his audibly conflicted major-label albums or his posthumously released double-disc, on which he forecasts his demise almost as explicitly as 2Pac. It doesn’t represent a particularly generous cross-section of his canon. The threadbare ballads “Needle In the Hay” and “Angeles” are as sad and ominous as ever, but Introduction is heavily front-loaded with them. Later inclusions such as “Pretty (Ugly Before)” and “Happiness” show how his music could be just as resonant when more fleshed out, and then it’s over.
I’d definitely recommend getting started somewhere with Elliott Smith, before you misjudge him and embarrass yourself. He deserves a full retrospective treatment, and he’ll eventually get it, with early sketches, rarities and an expansive sampling of his oeuvre. This ain’t it. There was more to Smith’s life, music and mind than “Scruffy Indie Hero Goes Hollywood, Dies.” To be fair, this is an "introduction," and doesn’t claim to be an anthology. It paints a picture not vulgar, but biased and limited. Don’t use it as an excuse to stop digging.