19 Years Ago: Elliott Smith’s ‘Roman Candle’ Album Released
A Roman candle, by definition, is a firework that spits fire in calculated intervals. It’s the perfect metaphor for young songwriter Elliott Smith, whose solo debut, ‘Roman Candle,’ turns 19 today.
Released when 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 Smith wasn’t able to ‘Miser-ize. Every songwriter knows that there are some songs that just don’t fit the band mold (or might not make the cut with his bandmates), the most notable example being George Harrison, an obvious influence on Smith’s work.
If you’re not familiar with Heatmiser’s output (we’d suggest picking up ‘Mic City Sons’), it’s mish-mash of Smith’s and Gust’s fully realized and arranged but highly divergent musical tastes. Smith’s tunes echo the folk-rock that what would become his signature sound, while Gust’s are more steeped in the alt-era stylings of the Lemonheads or Blake Babies.
In that sense, ‘Roman Candle’ was a big leap forward for Smith, who up to that point had 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. To wit: 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.