An Intro to Elliott Smith: Why We're Not Comfortable with a Greatest Hits Collection

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Mmm... Garamond Pro.
On Wednesday Kill Rock Stars and Domino announced the early November release of An Introduction to... Elliott Smith. It's been almost seven years since Smith stabbed himself in the chest, since which time his grave has hardly been quiet, what with a posthumous album, and a collection of B-sides, and some tribute albums, and a biography, and a book of photos. I'm all for more people listening to his little bleeding-heart (whoops... too soon?) gems of love and despair, but an introduction? Already?

You should know, to understand my hesitation, that I'm one of those people who really, really loves Elliott Smith, who was exposed at the right moment to his wounded romanticism and fucked up addiction tales and classical indie-rock ugliness, who will defend him against all accusations of insufferable whininess and bristle at single-T spellings of his first name. It's predictable enough that I feel protective of his music and my personal relationship to it, but news of this Introduction stirs something else in me, something that's probably illegitimate and probably inevitable: I feel protective of his legacy, entitled to my say in how it's passed on. I feel that my devotion to his work allows me to be perpetually unsatisfied with anyone else's attempt to represent it.

This isn't surprising, really: the greatest hits album is an inherently reductive endeavor, even when it's based on quantifiable criteria like chart position or radio play or release as a single (remember those?), and it's especially murky when the artist isn't alive to weigh in on whether his or her wishes have been respected. Not that that stopped me from getting to know The Police through Every Breath You Take or from taking the Substance shortcut to New Order and Joy Division. Hell, I bought Way To Blue: An Introduction to Nick Drake, a singer whose career predicted Smith's right down to the suicide, for the same reasons KRS and Domino are banking on: I didn't know where to start, and the word "introduction" called to me. Nobody insisted -- as I would insist for a newcomer to Smith, or Nirvana or Radiohead or R.E.M., or to recently defunct acts like Sparklehorse or Telefon Tel Aviv or Jay Reatard -- that I begin with a real album and work my way out from there.

Still, whether you frame it as an introduction or a best-of, this sort of project is necessary if an artist's work is to reach a new audience. If An Introduction to... Elliott Smith smacks at first glance of mercantilism--what's with all the songs that have been licensed to films? What's with the massive preponderance of songs from Either/Or? -- it remains a sound, intelligently sequenced selection of his songs, suitably indicative of his peaks and valleys, and snarling intensity, and fragile beauty. I'd like to think that whoever was tasked with compiling it did so as a labor of love, but that doesn't change the fact that it's a cruel, choose-one-of-your-children-to-save kind of love. At fifty minutes, it could have accommodated half a dozen more songs ("Say Yes"! "Son of Sam"! "King's Crossing"! Anything from Roman Candle!) -- but which half dozen is a question diehard fans will never answer in unison. Therein lies the beauty of aesthetic experience, and the epic pain in the ass of anthologizing.

I could put together an entirely different Elliott Smith primer (come to think of it, I once did, back before his death and before analog mix tapes were the acme of postmodern preciousness), but that's not the point. The point, no matter the artist, is that those of us who could do so will never be quite comfortable with the proposition. It's not that we can't accept that a compilation has been curated well by someone else who got there first, or that we can't bear to think there are still people out there who need introducing; it's more like the sinking feeling that agreeing on an all-purpose introduction to Elliott Smith is tantamount to admitting that our personal connections to his music aren't enough to keep it, or him, alive.

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