Knowledge is cumulative; it’s impossible to unlearn once absorbed. I didn’t hear a song by Elliott Smith until sometime after he left the planet in October 2003 and I will never hear his music unshaded by death’s shadow. I will never encounter his music coloured by the hopefulness that surrounded his early success and celebration, or feel how welcome his brighter, gentler vibe was in the post-grunge context. There’s no way to recover from exposure to information. If I try to imagine Smith’s works without the shroud wrapped around them then I’m keenly aware that it’s a pretence of innocence; that I’m only pretending not to hear that pall. Intellectually I know the emotion, the mood, would be so different hearing these songs on a summer’s day in 1996, or catching Smith’s TV performance for the Oscars in 1998.
In truth, music is always adulterated, impure. The double vinyl soundtrack to the documentary Heaven Adores You sits next to the DVD film on my shelves – but it was only this week, one year on from its release, that I watched the film. What scared me was knowing that seeing it would indelibly stain each note with the images or words they accompany. The lightness of ‘Say Yes’, always a tune of appealing warmth, is now bound to his ex-girlfriend saying she wished it had been written under better circumstances; they had broken up – while I hadn’t even noticed it was a song about recovering after a relationship. On the flip side, I had heard ‘Christian Brothers’ – recorded with his band Heatmeister – as a work Elliott moved on from, but now I’m aware I simply missed the chance to hear Heatmeister as one of Portland’s bright young hopes.
Of course nothing is ever just about the music. Recordings made in the life of an artist are suffused with wider visions, desires, movements, waves far beyond the sonic dimension that arrives on wax. Posthumous recordings double down on this compromise between information and sound. What is lost is ‘hope’: the knowledge that – no matter how good or bad a record is – there’s something new, something different, still to come whether an evolution of a successful formula or a complete overthrow of expectations. Posthumous releases strip music of that emotional core, replacing one of the fundamental features of music as a lived communion between artist and listener with a hollow void. Grief is the primary response to that absence, emerging as the fury and frustration fans often vent toward any archive project.
In the case of Heaven Adores You, it would be a piteously harsh soul who doubted the good intentions behind this tribute to Elliott Smith which was initiated by fans of his work, has had its music curated by old friends, features interviews with the core people who shared his life, and even involves a percentage of profit going to the Outside In charity for the homeless and disadvantaged in Portland. The film itself is saturated in Smith’s music – far more than the extensive selection featured in the soundtrack – indicating the strong work conducted to ensure the estate/copyright holders were willing to cooperate with the project and permit its use. The film, in general, is an effective mixture of documentary tropes – lingering shots of significant locations, talking head context and archival review.
While living artists have the luxury of letting a release evolve over time as a snapshot of where they are, what they’re thinking, a posthumous project requires a hard choice to be made because all that can ever emerge is a cross-section sliced from a dwindling subject. In this case the soundtrack is tied quite tightly to the film’s chronological narrative structure thus providing an overview of Smith’s entire career ranging from early teenage demos, through various collaborations, onward across his solo phase. It can be seen as a more expansive and wide-ranging companion to the An Introduction To… compilation released on Kill Rock Stars in 2010, however, there’s a significant trove of unheard versions or unreleased material here which elevates it a step beyond the latter’s ‘greatest hits with cursory extras’ approach.
A further strength of Heaven Adores You lies in its diversity; the blend of studio recordings, demo recordings, solo and group pieces, keeps it interesting. Two songs are performed live and ordinarily the insertion of live renditions amid studio material simply serves to indicate the superiority of studio recording and fidelity – I was surprised here by ‘Miss Misery (Live on Late Night with Conan O’Brien).’ There’s something horrendously incongruous about the host’s bonhomie, which feels so many grey miles away from Smith’s mood. Likewise I can barely comprehend the crowd whooping it up for this charmingly downhearted track – there’s a fathomless disconnect here. It testifies to Smith’s strength as an artist that stood in the artificial world of the talk-show his very presence makes everyone else seem phony.
That sense of division is, for me, the key that unlocks this release. Across the record whatever message or lesson one might take about who Elliott Smith was comes with a counter. There’s a refusal to reduce him to a one line summary; there’s a person here who resists easy categorisation. While ‘Miss Misery’ shows Smith alone in a crowd – who applaud him no more or less than they would the latest bright young thing – ‘Say Yes (Live at Yo Yo Festival 1997)’ finds him comfortably at home inviting requests and chatting back and forth with audibly engaged fans who discuss what to play with him before listening respectfully as he performs. This isn’t a scared or tormented man mumbling while staring at his feet; as the fifteen seconds of applause end he’s straight back to amicable chat as the song cuts off.
The curators of this soundtrack seem wholly in accord with Smith; at times they create the duality, at other times he needs no assistance. ‘I Love My Room’ is the soundtrack’s goofy suckerpunch – an earnest, yet funny, ballad devoted to the pleasures of Smith’s four walls and skilfully rendered with multiple parts and backing vocals. The song works on numerous levels, most obviously as the closing track contrasting with the seriousness of much else on this record, again as a reminder of Smith’s virtuosity, then as a mark of his wilful flakiness (“Sometimes I’ll smoke a cigarette but be careful so the ashes don’t collect…”) But then come the final two lines, the warmth of “See you in a little while my baby,” spat back out with the simultaneous chill and innocence of “See you underneath the willow tree” spoken like an invitation to the grave.
Considering the soundtrack as a whole it’s remarkable how something so diverse can be bound so tight. I felt no need to parse it down, to be selective, each time I’ve listened to it I gobble the album whole in single sittings. Instrumental tracks cluster together on the first half of the release and provide far more pleasures than just a chance to spot influences or appreciate Smith’s mastery of his instrument. There’s a range of emotion and approach here. ‘Unknown Song (Instrumental)’ feels like a surf-tinged castoff just waiting for lyrics to be applied; ‘Untitled Melancholy Song’ works just fine as a soaring rock instrumental; ‘Untitled Soft Song in F’ steps into warmer vibes while straying close to gypsy jazz territory. Even ‘Untitled Guitar Finger Picking’, recorded at age fourteen, testifies to a guy whose castoffs and practices maintain interest.
Other ghosts walk through these songs. The spirit of Nick Drake leaves footprints on something like ‘The Last Hour (Early Version).’ The film commented on comparisons to Simon & Garfunkel, something that hadn’t occurred to me until then. The dimension to the film, missing from the soundtrack, is the sense of a man always on the cusp of moving on; Smith is constantly leaving places, people, bands, sounds behind – nothing is more than a frame or two away from a farewell. It is album highlight ‘Everything Means Nothing to Me’ that serves to purposefully reconnect film and soundtrack. The beauteous piano and multitracked vocals create something approximating a lost McCartney classic before the drums crash in, electronic strings sore and the chorus line loops over to leave a sense of the protagonist simply strolling away into the sound.
So, though there are few revelations herein – no noise experiments, no wild diversions or ten minute solos – Heaven Adores You achieves a notable complexity and intimacy. There’s no attempt to palm the listener off with one particular vision of Smith – some unsophisticated and unreal singularity. Instead, honest friendship and kindness is revealed through never allowing any image of Smith to settle for too long. The man seen here is too complicated, too diverse; an ultimately human figure…And what more beautiful tangled epitaph can there be for anyone beyond declaring them human in all the magisterial, profane, joyful and bereft ways that may imply?