John Lennon, Kurt Cobain and—most recently—Elliott Smith: only reluctantly did each assume the role of musical icon, zealous to distinguish craft from celebrity and avoid the inevitable crush of fans it brought to their respective doorsteps. Inevitably, as Smith found, the farther one runs, the more swiftly fame pursues—one month you’re playing ditties in a Portland coffee shop; the next, you’re performing at the Academy Awards.
Benjamin Nugent’s biography, which seeks to understand Smith’s uncomfortable transition from rags to recording budgets, hovers on the monotonous—does anyone really care what hue Smith dyed his hair while a college freshman?—but he occasionally breaks through the mystique behind Smith’s songs. Anchoring the story are interviews with David McConnell, who produced Smith’s final album. And for minutiae Nugent mines archival interviews with Smith and his girlfriend, Jen Chiba.
When exhumed, Smith’s beleaguered actions only make this portrait of his private life more painful. Take Marc Swanson’s story about the time Smith befriended a mentally ill man in Brooklyn, or examine the photos, which repeatedly show Smith clad in dark sweatshirt and knit cap, doing whatever he could to fade into the background. Unfortunately for the shy songwriter, Smith’s exceeding talent would never afford him anonymity’s mixed luxury.