Elliott Smith died aged 34 on the 21st of October 2003 from two self-inflicted stab wounds in the chest. After years of drug and alcohol abuse, a way to cope with his depression and spiralling paranoia, Smith had finally seemed to be on the mend. Toxicologists confirmed that at the time of death, he was only on prescription medication. Next to such tragedy, the fact that Smith still had so much to offer the world almost seems like a selfish and trivial complaint, but for a man whose creative output was so deeply personal, mourning the loss of his music is tangled irreversibly with the loss of the musician himself. There’s no doubt that he was one of the most talented artists of any generation, a genius of fragile self-reflection, and this album, released 13 years after his death, sees a host of artists both old and young grappling with his catalogue in tribute to a key influence.
The record opens with a cover off Between The Bars, arguably Smith’s finest song. While there’s nothing wrong with the cover, it doesn’t really do anything new. The guitar work loses a certain finesse, and Tanya Donelly’s voice is incapable of matching Smith’s beautiful near-whisper – a harsh complaint, however, and one that is to be expected; not many can match his inimitable style.
Unfortunately, most songs here fall into the same trap. They simply don’t deviate enough from the original material. Some manage to pull this off, such as Julien Baker covering Ballad Of Big Nothing, which is drenched in a lovely reverb and propelled by her wonderful harmonies. William Fitzsimmons’ cover of Say Yes is perhaps the highlight of these more faithful renditions: his delicate vocals fit perfectly on the song but add an earthier dimension instead of Smith’s breathier style. Similarly, Amanda Smith lends a bitter twist to Pictures Of Me, her deep and sultry vocals dripping with cynicism and anger, and backed up by an often discordant piano. The sometimes subtle and sometimes drastic dynamic changes on this song do a great job of holding the listener’s attention
On the other hand, there are a few surprises to be discovered. J Mascis is one of the only artists brave enough to attack his song from a rockier angle, and while it certainly doesn’t pack the same emotional punch of the original, it’s at least different. The guitar solo especially changes the mood of the piece, transforming the line “I’m tired” from an expression of defeat and depression into one of defiance. This is the true joy of some of these songs: they bring new and often uncovered emotions out of old songs. Sun Kil Moon’s Condor Avenue sounds like a cross between Elliott Smith and Lou Reed, exuding a disaffected and bored, but distinctively cool, post-party vibe. And, if you could believe it, Waxahatchee chose to slow down Angeles, as if Smith’s songs need to be made any darker. The choice certainly works, however, even if it does prove to be a bit of a slog as it progresses.
Overall, the main problem with this tribute seems to be a lack of identity and of audience. Those unfamiliar with Smith would do better to listen to his own albums, which are musically in another league, and for obvious reasons much more cohesive both tonally and structurally. However, established fans won’t really find much worth revisiting here, either. Too many renditions do nothing new, and those that do often only bear a few listens – past that they simply feel like a novelty. The tribute is a well-meaning one, but ultimately unnecessary.