Elliott Smith 25th anniversary edition: a careful tribute which lays an artist bare

A photo of Elliott Smith
(Image credit: JJ Gonson)

Seventeen years on from his tragic death, Elliott Smith is still one of the most influential alternative musicians to ever have existed. While he was a skilled multi-instrumentalist, he is best known for using his guitar and voice to deliver a devastating combination of lyrics and emotion. His music has impacted artists across alternative music for over two decades: from Conor Oberst to Billie Eilish to Phoebe Bridgers to Death Cab For Cutie, it’s arguable that there isn't an indie, folk or emo artist alive who wasn’t even a little bit touched by Smith, whether they know it or not.

One of Smith’s most influential records was his self-titled second studio album, Elliott Smith, in 1995. While it didn’t have much of an impact on the time, critics and artists have retrospectively praised its impact, with opener Needle In The Hay remaining one of his best-known tracks. To celebrate the 25th anniversary and acknowledge its influence, record label Kill Rock Stars have released an expanded edition of the album, with a remastered LP and a previously unreleased live album. 

The remastered albums are also available in a coffee table book by photographer JJ Gonson, a close friend of Smith’s who took hundreds of personal, candid photos of Smith on tour and at home in Portland. Speaking on the release, Slim Moon, the founder of Kill Rock Stars, says, “As the person who originally signed him to the label, starting with the Needle In The Hay single and this self-titled album, I am especially passionate about putting forward reminders of this phase of his career – his magic as a solo performer and as a writer of songs for simply guitar and voice with little or no accompaniment.

“I also really want him to be remembered for his humour, warmth, and absurdist sense of irony.”

The book itself, which contains two dozen previously unseen photographs from Smith’s time on tour and living in Portland, is 52-pages long and captures the spirit of him as he was; his joy, his sense of humour, and his personality. Gonson’s photos lift the veil of grief and mystery that surrounds Smith, mostly showing him laughing with his friends. 

Introducing the book, Gonson lovingly says, “looking at images provided a skeleton of time, a frame on which to drape shrouds of remembering. Most of experience slips and drops away, like the figures of the sculptures on the cover of this record, but we all, together, can recreate it. Together we remember.”

The book also features handwritten lyrics, each song given its own page to breathe. The most moving parts, though, are the tributes by Smith’s colleagues, friends, family and Heatmiser bandmates. His sister writes fond memories of going to visit her brother, remembering eating Thanksgiving dinner together in New York: “A simpler time when I was revelling in getting to know my big brother outside the confines of the dinner table, and realising that the world was much, much bigger than I had ever imagined.”

Sometimes it’s easy to be cynical when labels put out re-releases, particularly when the artist in question is no longer with us to say yes or no. But the remastering of Elliott Smith and its accompanying coffee table book set an example for the best way you can go about it: a thoughtful labour of love, a careful, dedicated work put together by the people who knew Elliott Smith the person, who know best how to share his personality and legacy with the world.

Elliott Smith was released on August 28. Smith died in 2003.