The Story of Elliott Smith’s Little-Heard ‘Roman Candle’
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Elliott Smith would rise to fame in the late ’90s as one of the best songwriters of his day. But before his talents would be heard by a larger audience, he released his solo debut, Roman Candle, on July 14, 1994 on Portland’s Cavity Search Records.
At the time, Smith was still a member of Heatmiser, a band he’d formed at Hampshire College with friend Neil Gust. Roman Candle plays like a stack of songs that didn’t fit in with that band. In that sense, it was a big leap forward for Smith, who up to that point had only arranged his songs for a band. This time, it was just him, an acoustic guitar, doubled lead vocals, sparse percussion and the occasional overdub. You might say Smith was the band, and while it’s simplest set of tunes in Smith’s canon, it might be the most starkly personal.
Four of the tracks are simply called “No Name,” and despite the lack of hits, there’s plenty of sheer brilliance. “Last Call” builds into an otherworldly thunderhead of emotion (“I wanted her to tell me / that she would never wake me“), while “No Name #2,” which should be renamed “Suite for Guitar and Harmonica,” would have fit on any of Smith’s later albums.
It’s impossible to write Roman Candle off as just dirty bathwater. Compare it to the stuff that was coming out at the time, and the record looks fairly revolutionary. Not that very many people took notice at the time. Smith would have to wait until his fourth album, 1998’s XO, to reach the Billboard 200, and even then, he only hit No. 104. His highest chart placement would come with 2004’s From a Basement On a Hill, though by then, he was already gone.
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