Roman Candle

Elliott Smith

Cavity Search, 1994

REVIEW BY: Melanie Love

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 07/04/2007

Most debut albums show just a glimmer of an artist’s full potential, containing the first burgeoning seedlings of the fully realized genius to come; however, a few first releases are surprisingly and stunningly solid from the get-go (Arcade Fire’s Funeral, Appetite for Destruction, Ten and Are You Experienced come to mind).

Elliott Smith’s deceptively subdued Roman Candle, recorded largely on a borrowed four-track tape recorder after splitting from his previous gig as frontman of Portland’s Heatmiser, is one of the rare latter, proving his exceptional ability to craft a flawless pop song.

Roman Candle begins with the brooding, bottled anger of its title track, with lyrics like “I’m a Roman candle / my head is full of flames / I want to hurt him / I want to give him pain” delivered in an ominous whisper and backdropped by the relentless strum of an acoustic guitar. “Roman Candle”’s stark, hazy instrumentation is ultimately what allows Smith’s hauntingly intimate lyrics to become all the more potent. my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Even when the album shifts to a lighter, folkier tone on “Condor Avenue,” which was reportedly penned when Smith was 17, undercurrents of the slow-burning rage of “Roman Candle” are still notably present; though Smith’s vocals are hushed and dreamlike, the venom nevertheless manages to seep through in lines like “What a shitty thing to say / did you really mean it? / You never said a word to me about what passed between us so now I’m leaving you alone / You can do whatever the hell you want to.”

“No Name #1,” the first of four tracks of similar anonymity, paints a portrait of an awkward, uncomfortable partygoer masterfully described as “looking kind of spooky and withdrawn / like he could be underwater;” slyly, the pronouns shift from “he” to “I” as he realizes there is nothing to do but “leave alone, you don’t belong here” as the shoegazing melodies finally drift away to nothing. “No Name #4” is again instrumentally sparse, solely the squeaky finger-plucking of Smith’s acoustic guitar backing the track’s immediately evocative lyrics of a woman escaping an abusive relationship.

“Last Call” is another Smith is said to have written in high school, an aggressive, biting track that suddenly shifts from a lone acoustic guitar strum to Smith accusingly snarling in his full-voice “You’re a crisis / you’re an icicle / you’re a tongueless talker / you just don’t care what you say’ before dissolving into a resigned, ceaseless plea to just be delivered into sleep.

The album closes on a decidedly less incensed note with the instrumental ‘Kiwi Maddog 20/20,” which features shimmering guitars and loose drumming as a surprisingly suitable contrast to the preceding sparkling imagery.

Roman Candle often finds itself overshadowed by Smith’s later albums, such as his eponymous follow-up or the more filled-out instrumentation of Either/Or, but I’d be hard-pressed to agree. This album is much more than simply a stepping stone to future successes; Roman Candle instead is an exquisite release in its own rite, one that resounds far beyond its brief runtime and serves as a shining reminder of Smith’s inimitable, endearing talent.

Rating: A

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© 2007 Melanie Love and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Cavity Search, and is used for informational purposes only.