It’s hard to critique an Elliott Smith album. What does one even say? Any critique would be a knock against Smith’s artistry. Each album Smith has made has been a testament to the events circling his life, and his debut album, Roman Candle, is no different. With limited access to instruments and recording equipment, Smith managed to create a defining sound that allowed him to build and expand his career over the next ten years.
Before his solo career, Elliott Smith was in a band called Heatmiser. His vocals and guitar ability can be heard in their early discography. In 1994, Smith wrote and recorded his first solo album, Roman Candle. It is an intimate album, with only Smith’s guitar and wispy vocals complementing–yet fighting–the guitar at times. An electric guitar can be heard on “Last Call,” but other than that Smith sticks with his acoustic guitar. The ambiance Smith creates through limited instruments allows for his storytelling to jump out. Smith has lyrics that stick with the listener such as “I wanted her to tell me that she would never wake me” from “Last Call,” “Killing time won’t stop this crying” from “No Name #2,” or “I’m a roman candle / my head is full of flame” from “Roman Candle.” Smith has a talent for putting the listener in his shoes, forcing the audience to feel his own complex emotions. Roman Candle is almost a confessional album from Smith.
A lot of acoustic albums struggle with the notion of each song sounding similar to each other. A modern example of this is Sling by Clairo (funnily enough, she used a similar progression from “Say Yes” – a track from Smith’s 1997 album Either/Or – in her song “Blouse”). Smith, however, avoids this conundrum beautifully. Each song is unique yet flows together perfectly. From husky tunes such as “Roman Candle” and “Drive All Over Town” to upbeat songs like “No Name #2” and “No Name #3” and even to the edgy “Last Call,” Smith is able to create a sonically coherent album.
Roman Candle sits at about 31 minutes in play time with 9 tracks, Smith’s shortest album. Smith opens the album with the title track “Roman Candle.” A fast paced minor key, Smith provides light acoustics accompanied with an occasional electric guitar. The opening song starts in a first person narrative, which allows Smith to pull in the listener with not only the intoxicating guitars but the lulling vocals as well. Smith sings of revenge, using the metaphor “I’m a roman candle / my head is full of flame” to refer to the angst the speaker is experiencing, relating to the lyrics “I want to hurt him / I want to give him pain.” Smith’s vocals drop out as the song continues with only acoustics for the last minute- Smith harmonizes with himself at points,communicating the dying sense of angst: afterall, a flame dies down after time.
Switching to an upbeat major feel, Smith continues Roman Candle with “Condor Ave.” Smith also changes the narration from the first person of “Roman Candle” to a shifting point of view. Smith describes the story of “Condor Ave,” from first person, second person, and third person. With the jumps of narration, the listener is drawn into the story and acoustics of Smith’s music. The juxtaposition of the lyrics to the sonic sound of “Condor Ave,” also draw the listener in. If the audience has not been hooked at this point, they simply fail to appreciate Smith’s artistry.
“Drive All Over Town” is set in a minor key as well, but is the least intriguing song on Roman Candle. Melodically, Smith’s vocals are as strong as ever yet the simple repetitive rhythm creates a lull in the album. Sitting between “No Name #3” and “No Name #4” doesn’t do it any favors either, “Drive All Over Town” is Roman Candle’s only low.
Following “Condor Ave,” “No Name #1” (“#1” for short) is the first in a series of four songs that have no name. “#1” by itself is not incredibly memorable. The melodies and guitar provide a nice lilting feel in the song and provides a nice bridge between “Condor Ave” and “No Name #2” (“#2” for short, this pattern will continue). However, Smith’s narrative ability and distinct, stinging lyrics continue through “#1” with lines such as “leave alone / you don’t belong.” “#2” picks up right where “#1” leaves off and picks up the tempo a bit. Smith explores key modulations, making the fifth of the song minor. The listener expects a major five chord in any key, but Smith grabs the attention of anyone listening by smacking them in the face with the minor five (a strange sound to hear in any context). Smith continues his shifting narrative and leaves the listener with the memorable line “Killing time won’t stop this crying.”
“No Name #3” (“#3”) is the fan favorite of Roman Candle. It’s slower in tempo and more abstract in lyrics, allowing for listeners to apply different meanings to it. The song is simple in its rhythm and melody, yet the listener is pulled in with lyrics like “Everyone is gone / Home to Oblivion.” Smith utilizes some intriguing chords in the chorus to spice the song up a little bit, but overall “#3” is a slower song for the album. The saga of no named songs ends with “No Name #4” (“#4”). Picking up where “Condor Ave” left off, “#4” speeds up the tempo and has similar rhythmic patterns that “Condor Ave” established. Smith also uses the changing point of view he used in “Condor Ave” on “#4,” shifting between first, second, and third person. “#4” has a lot similar with “Condor Ave,” but it creates its own unique melodies and its own story.
The longest song on Roman Candle is “Last Call,” the edgy album closer that feeds into a guitar play out: “Kiwi Maddog 20/20 (version 2 of 2)” (“Kiwi Maddog” for short). Sounding almost like a diss track, the electric guitar countermelody Smith provides to accompany the vocal and rhythmic guitar creates this atmosphere of anger. If there were loud drums in the background, “Last Call” would be in a similar vein as “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” that kind of angst. The song and album culminates to Smith’s repetition of the line “I wanted her to tell me that she would never wake me” and finally climaxing with the single line “I’m lying here waiting for sleep to overtake me.” That final line captures all of the emotion Smith poured into this album. He continues with a play out in “Kiwi Maddog” and follows the theme he set up in “Roman Candle:” the acoustic guitar conveys the dispersion of Smith’s emotions.
Although Roman Candle may have slower moments, the entire album creates a gentle aura while communicating the complicated emotions Elliott Smith incorporated in his songs. Roman Candle establishes the sound Smith becomes known for and was a fantastic first album, launching his solo career.
By Libby Eveland who is a co-host of “This is not a Drill” Thursdays 4-6pm and marches trombone in the Cavalier Marching Band. They spend way too much money on concert tickets. Spotify @libbyeveland
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