Perfect in All Its Imperfections: Elliott Smith’s ‘Roman Candle’ at 20

Elliott Smith’s acoustic guitar creaks and squeaks like an old house on his debut, Roman Candle, released 20 years ago today (July 14). Of the five albums Smith made over the course of his nine-year solo career, his debut was the most lo-fi, both in aesthetic and in process. As JJ Gonson, his ex-girlfriend and his band Heatmiser’s former manager, explained in Pitckfork’s oral history of Smith’s career, Smith would spent hours writing the songs that’d become Roman Candle in the upstairs portion of the house they shared together on Taylor Street in Portland. When he was ready to record, he’d retreat to the basement, where “he was perched on a stool surrounded by garbage.” Needless to say, he recorded the songs that would become Roman Candle quite quickly.

Smith’s four-track cassettes went back to a basement — that of Tony Lash, drummer for Smith’s band at the time, Heatmister — to be mixed. The album only saw the light of day after Gonson happened to play the tape for the folks at Portland’s Cavity Search Records while promoting Heatmiser. Months later, Kill Rock Stars founder Slim Moon would be so taken with the way Roman Candle sounded “soft and gritty” simultaneously, he eventually would sign Smith for his 1995 self-titled sophomore album.

“The whole sound quality of Roman Candle is entirely based on the fact that he’s using a low-quality microphone right up against his fingers,” Gonson said of the album. “He doesn’t even have an acoustic pickup — he’s playing an acoustic guitar into a microphone.”

The album was eventually remastered and reissued by Kill Rock Stars in 2010 with the goal of downplaying the sound of Smith’s fingers moving along the fretboard in mind. “The intention that I had was to make the album more listenable,” said Larry Crane, a Smith archivist who worked on the remastering. “I felt that a lot of the guitar ‘squeaks’ were jarring and very loud, and that many of the hard consonants and ‘s’ sounds were jarring and scratchy sounding. I felt by reducing these noises that the music would become more inviting and the sound would serve the songs better.”

Crane understood that the album’s raw sound — guitar squeaks included — were part of why people liked it, and Elliott Smith in general. So even when you listen to the new versions, you’ll still hear Smith’s fingers darting across the fretboard as “No Name #3” starts, or as he moves from verse to verse on “Condor Avenue.” You just might have to listen a little more closely.

Roman Candle wasn’t really meant to be much of anything, and there wasn’t much to hide behind in its songs about desperation, addiction, and ultimately, giving up. The album doesn’t sound like it was written in a tossed-off, almost careless way, but its recording does — or at least did, before the 2010 remaster. It’s easy to mistake the two, especially with four different songs called “No Name,” as if Smith couldn’t be bothered to pull something from the chorus. The re-emergence of “No Name” (No. 5 by this point) on Smith’s far less bare-bones third album, 1997’s Either/Or, should be proof enough: “No Name” is a statement on the subject matter, not Smith’s commitment to the work.

The album’s philosophical closing song, “Last Call,” doesn’t match the timelessness of “Needle In the Hay” or “Between the Bars,” but this suicide tale was an early indicator that Smith was capable of the highest caliber of melancholic storytelling. Indeed, with little more than his acoustic guitar, Elliott Smith would become the posterboy for ’00s melancholy. Even after he signed to a major label, he let a few squeaks slip in from time to time.