Roman Candle (Remastered)
The solo recording career of Elliott Smith began with such low expectations that nearly half the songs on his 1994 album Roman Candle don’t even have proper names, instead given titles like “No Name #1” or “No Name #4.” For a while, Smith had been taking his acoustic guitar on tour with Heatmiser, the gnarled and grunge-adjacent band he’d joined early in the decade. But his intricate fingerpicking and quiet brooding were a secret avocation, done out of sight of rock audiences demanding loud guitars and stentorian vocals. But sitting at a kitchen table with a pot of coffee and a four-track recorder, Smith began laying down his acoustic numbers, eventually submitting nine of them to the record label Cavity Search, hoping one of the tunes might work as a single. “They called back and said, ‘We want to put it out,’” Smith remembered later in an interview for Magnet magazine. “I said, ‘All right. Which songs?’ They were like, ‘We want to put it out.’” As in the whole thing. Though the acclaim was not quick to come, Roman Candle remains one of the best debuts of the 1990s—as well as a shockingly full statement from a singer-songwriter who would have even hesitated to call himself that. With shades of subtle dissonance and steady seething, Smith managed to take a sound that had largely been relegated to coffee shops in the early 1990s instead sound menacing and dangerous. Smith would soon make a habit out of stunning opening tracks, and the album’s titular first number is no exception, as he daydreams about just what he’d like to do about the brutalities of an abusive stepfather (it was a fight you instantly wanted him to win). The rest of Roman Candle’s brief 30-minute running time consists of majestic studies of despair and depravity: There’s the lover who becomes the stalker during “Drive All Over Town”; the person finally escaping abuse during “No Name #4”; and the constant worry of “No Name #2.” Still, the true staying power of Roman Candle stems from Smith’s ability to walk the line between specificity and suggestion. Who hasn’t felt ostracized and alone, like the narrator of “No Name #1”? And who hasn’t felt as though they were absolutely over everything, as reflected in the electric growl of “Last Call”? In the decade to come, Smith and his sweet, sad voice would become famous for portraits of desperation and oblivion. Recorded largely without an audience in mind, Roman Candle remains a set of stunning notebook sketches.