Elliott Smith was my Kurt Cobain.
I’ve been in love with Smith’s music since the ‘90s, but I only recently realized the truth of that statement. For my money, Smith was the best songwriter of my generation, an honest and sad poet with a fragile heart. Like Cobain, he recoiled from the light of fame, and once it shone on him, he spiraled down into drug abuse and depression. And like Cobain, he wrote his own ticket out of this world – in Smith’s case, reportedly stabbing himself twice in 2003, at the age of 34.
I mourned Elliott Smith the way others mourned Cobain. In a lot of ways, I’m still mourning him – his later records, Figure 8 and the posthumous From a Basement on the Hill, are tough for me to listen to. That’s why, even though I still haven’t seen the Cobain documentary Montage of Heck, I drove 45 minutes to see the only screening of Heaven Adores You, the Elliott Smith documentary, playing anywhere in my general area.
As you might expect, the film was sad and lovely. It traced Smith’s entire life, beginning with his death and looping back to his childhood, his first musical efforts, his time in Heatmiser (a surprisingly loud band for those who only know Smith as a folksy finger-picker), and the growing fame that met each of his six solo albums. The sight of white-suited Elliott Smith playing “Miss Misery” at the Academy Awards hasn’t lost any of its grand oddness, but here it is played like a victory, not just for Smith but for lovers of quality music. “We won one,” says Rob Schnapf, who produced Smith’s fourth album, XO.
And he’s right. Elliott Smith was never going to be a rock star. He’s too soft-spoken for that, his music too fragile and complicated and beautiful. That the measure of fame he attained was the worst thing that ever happened to him is clear throughout Heaven Adores You. But the fact that this gentle genius was able to touch so many with his work remains miraculous to me. That XO, which is on my short list of absolutely perfect albums, was released by a major label to massive critical acclaim is still a cause for celebration to me. As is the fact that I heard it at all, amidst the clang and clamor of the ‘90s.
Heaven Adores You is a fine tribute to a songwriter who means a lot to me, and watching so many people who knew him well say such nice things about him did my heart good. Twelve years on, I still miss him, and I still wish we could hear more of his sad, perfect songs. Watching this film brought all of that back. I highly recommend it, whether you’re new to Elliott Smith or, like me, his work is finely woven into the fabric of your life. Heaven Adores You will be out on DVD on July 17.
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Speaking of the ‘90s, there’s a new Faith No More album.
I have a list of songs that changed my perception of music, songs that tore down my mental barriers between styles and genres and showed me that music could be anything. Most of that list wouldn’t surprise anyone, but the fact that Faith No More’s “Epic” is on there does raise some eyebrows. I’m not sure I can overstate just how weird that song was in 1989 – they were a metal band, but Mike Patton rapped the verses, and they had prominent and dramatic keyboards, including a haunting piano outro that accompanied footage of a dying fish in the promo clip. This was unlike anything else out there.
And when I bought the album, The Real Thing, I found that “Epic” was unlike anything else the band had done too. The Real Thing is a metal-pop-prog smorgasbord, at times tongue in cheek (a vampire thrash song called “Surprise! You’re Dead!”) and at others deathly serious (the fantastic title track). There has never been a frontman like Patton, but he particularly stood out amidst the leather-clad hair-metal prancers of the day.
If Faith No More led to the horrors of Limp Bizkit and Sevendust, well, you can’t hold them responsible for that. Especially since they did everything to distance themselves from the rap-rock crowd in the following years. Angel Dust, their remarkable next record, practically spit in the face of everyone hoping they would produce “Epic II.” A singularly off-putting and uncompromising album, Angel Dust remains the band’s finest and craziest work. I don’t know any other band who would record both “Jizzlobber” and a cover of “Midnight Cowboy” in the same sessions, let alone sequence them back to back.
After guitarist Jim Martin left, Faith No More began sputtering, and finally ran out of gas in 1997. Their final effort, ironically titled Album of the Year, was fairly underwhelming, if still decent. It is this band, the 1997 band that includes guitarist Jon Hudson, that reunited in 2009 for years of successful tours. And it is this band that has written and recorded the first Faith No More album in 18 years, Sol Invictus.
I emphasize this because if you’re hoping for something on par with The Real Thing and Angel Dust, this is going to disappoint you. But if your benchmark is Album of the Year, you’ll find that Sol Invictus more than lives up. It is, blessedly, an album that doesn’t care if you like it. It’s clear the band was allowed to do whatever they wanted, and they used that freedom to create a dark collection of dramatic, keyboard-driven sorta-metal, a collection that makes full use of the versatile, amazing Patton.
Truly, Patton is the star here. The album begins with the piano-led title track, which he sing-speaks in his trademark unnerving way, and that leads into “Superhero,” a riff-heavy dirge that finds Patton unveiling both his scream and his strong melodic voice, and then into the nimble “Sunny Side Up.” These three songs should set the scene for you – they’re all pretty average, yet fully competent, and while the band sometimes sounds like they’re going through the motions, Patton is on fire. His material doesn’t always match his passion – he’s amazing when he has something to really sing – but it’s great to hear him in this context again.
I wish I could say this album knocked me out. I like the dark crawl of “Separation Anxiety,” especially when it erupts around the two-minute mark, but it doesn’t go anywhere spectacular. I love hearing Patton spit out the spoken lyrics of “Cone of Shame,” then shout “I’d like to peel your skin off so I can see what you really think,” but that’s about all I love about that song. I’ve disliked “Motherfucker” since I first heard it, and I have reserved feelings about the dark six-minute epic “Matador.” My favorite thing here might be “Black Friday,” a jaunty acoustic tune about commercialism that explodes into a fiery refrain of “BUY IT!”
None of Sol Invictus is bad, and I’m inclined to be lenient considering the band hasn’t written new material together in nearly two decades. This certainly doesn’t reach the heights that those who would be interested in it might expect. As a second album from the band that made Album of the Year, it’s not bad. As a continuation of the Faith No More legacy, it falls a bit short. It’s nice to have these guys back, and it’s especially nice to hear Mike Patton snarl and shout his way through a new batch of songs. If this is a true reunion, though, I hope their next record edges closer to the revolutionary work they’re known for.
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That’ll do it this week. Next time, I try to catch up, and (I’m sure) fail utterly. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook here.
See you in line Tuesday morning.