On March 23, 1998, a frail man in an ill-fitting white suit took the stage in front of Hollywood’s biggest stars (James Cameron, Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hanks), to perform at that year’s Oscars. Fifty-five million Americans watched that broadcast — the event’s highest ratings, ever — and, to the vast majority of them, that vulnerable performance of “Miss Misery” was their first introduction to Elliott Smith. Twelve years later — and six years after Smith fatally stabbed himself in his girlfriend’s apartment — comes An Introduction to Elliott Smith, a compilation that maybe would have made some sense in 1998 but has no place in 2010.
Kill Rock Stars was wise in labeling this thing an “introduction”; were this marked as a best-of, there’d be far more to complain about. It’s hard to tell if Kill Rock Stars is saying anything more significant than “we couldn’t get the rights to those tracks” by minimizing the latter half of Smith’s career; it probably is not. Yet regardless of intent, it seems like KRS is arguing that Smith was at his best when it was just him and his four track, before the major-label money let him cover his worsening psychic wounds with increasingly ornate instrumentation. That’s fundamentally untrue, but spend enough time with some of his early period’s better cuts (“Angeles,” say, or “Needle in the Hay,” both thankfully included on this compilation) and you can start to think that nothing will ever be as affecting.
Putting aside questions of whether or not this is a proper introduction to a decade-spanning career (it’s not), there’s still the issue of just who, exactly, KRS is trying to introduce Elliott Smith to. If it’s the millenials who missed Smith the first time around, then this is a woefully misguided effort. Better to have put out a couple of free MP3s, because the odds of some kid picking this up at a record store on a whim are zilch (especially with that hideously photoshopped cover art). If it’s for the people who weren’t in grade school when Smith was a semi-famous public figure, you have to wonder why seeing this thing on display at the mall, or iTunes, or whatever, would suddenly compel them to explore this man’s discography. And if, ultimately, it’s for the legions of obsessives willing to drop some cash on anything remotely Smith-related — even if it is just a bunch of poorly arranged tracks that are easily available elsewhere — well, then, Kill Rock Stars should be ashamed of itself.
But, fine, the music. It’s uniformly brilliant, of course, and relatively diverse — although throw together any random fourteen Smith tracks and that’s bound to happen. There’s “Last Call,” off Smith’s debut, which sounds like it was recorded on a cigarette-burned couch at 4 in the morning as Smith played through his hangover. And then there’s the orchestral melancholy of “Waltz #2 (XO),” which sounds like it was recorded in a well-lit studio — which, of course, it was (although admittedly I can’t attest to its lighting). There’s “Ballad of Big Nothing” (one of five Either/Or tracks on this thing), which would almost be an anthem were its central rallying cry (“You can do what you want to, whenever you want to”) not tempered by Smith’s ever-present nihilism (“though it doesn’t mean a thing”). Smith would grow downright noisy for the first time on From a Basement on the Hill — as tasteful a posthumous release as one could hope for — yet dirty up the production a bit and the selections from that album included on An Introduction could have fit just as easily on Either/Or.
The compilation ends with “Happiness,” Smith’s most conventionally uplifting track and the only sign that this disc wasn’t compiled by an uninterested computer. “All I want now is happiness for you and me,” Smith sings, over and over, and the sad irony is almost too much to bear. But you can just see it. Smith in the afterlife, wearing that now-appropriate white suit, the choir behind him peopled with familiar faces: Drake, Buckley, Cobain. “Happiness” bleeds into the brief, muted interlude of “The Gondola Man.” On Figure 8, it served as a nice transition between two great songs. Here, it snaps the listeners back to reality, gives them time to wipe their tears away, collect their things, exit the theater — and maybe realize they’ve been exploited. Especially if they paid for this thing.