Elliott Smith’s self-titled album has served as a landmark in indie folk for the past 25 years. Smith’s work has taken on a life of its own (especially in the years following his death in 2003), creating a musical blueprint for exploring the deepest recesses of human emotion. To commemorate its anniversary, Smith’s label Kill Rock Stars released an expanded reissue of Elliott Smith that breathes new life into an old classic. But is it necessary?
“Needle in the Hay” is a brutal opener. The repetitive guitar strum in the intro paints an endless landscape of dirt, trees and darkness. The compressed, almost claustrophobic original sounds like it was recorded in an empty bedroom. In the remastered version, you’re in that bedroom. The already uncomfortable intimacy is heightened by enhanced vocals that feel almost voyeuristic.
Most of the details are subtle. The faint screech of Smith’s feverish guitar plucking is enhanced ever so slightly, especially on “Southern Belle.” The haunting harmonica on “Alphabet Town” slips out of tune more noticeably. The harmonies on “Good to Go” are clearer. These small recording inconsistencies manifested in the bedrooms of bandmate Tony Lash and mixing assistant Leslie Uppinghouse add charm to the original recording and are made more powerful in the remaster. These details convey the innocence and desperation of a pained man itching to record songs that may eventually change one life, or thousands.
However, that’s not to say that the original recordings weren’t also magical. The lo-fi nature of the record also made it that much easier to forgive all the subtleties that the remaster intensifies. There is a profound intimacy within the original album’s bareness, even when all the instruments clash into a sea of indistinguishable noise.
The two versions of the album serve different purposes. The joyful stew of drums, guitars and organs on “Coming Up Roses” sound like a drunken marching band crammed inside a tiny closet on the newest edition. Perhaps Elliott envisioned the songs in his head with these grandiose drums and trumpets. But, of course, we can’t know for sure.
The second half of the remaster includes a recording of Smith performing solo for the first time. Many fans are already well acquainted with the bootlegs, but the official remasters open up a new world. The echo and background noise of the venue are removed, creating space to focus on Smith and the mysterious crowd forever immortalized in this legendary recording.
Smith’s banter with the crowd and his guitar tuning are almost as good as his performance, further humanizing a revered yet mythicized artist whose pain was romanticized for decades. His voice cracks on “Some Song” when he croons “Help me kill my time, ‘cause I’ll never be fine.” Whether or not his untimely passing and drug usage were prophesied, the living and breathing entities within Smith’s songs are revitalized on this new edition.
While this minimalistic, lo-fi, indie folk masterpiece didn’t necessarily need to be remastered, it was done with care. Smith’s work has served as the foundation for countless punk, indie and folk acts, and it hopefully will for generations to come. This clearer, more contextualized version of his timeless storytelling is a chance to be reintroduced to an old friend—or become acquainted with a new one.
Jade Gomez is a New Jersey-based freelance writer, dog mom, Southern rap aficionado and compound sentence enthusiast. Her incessant commentary got her suspended from social media, so feel free to shout into the void or follow her on Instagram.