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Recalling the troubled genius of Elliott Smith

“I'm more of an Elliott Smith guy.”

I've said this often, always in response to queries from friends and acquaintances (and strangers, too) regarding my opinion of Kurt Cobain and Nirvana.

It's wrong to associate Cobain and Smith, really, and let's face it – the main reason for doing so is the fact that both committed suicide after long struggles with depression and drug addiction. But there are other similarities, too. Both emerged from the same post-punk musical milieu, both cut their teeth as musicians working in the Pacific Northwest – Cobain in Seattle, Smith in Portland – and both turned their personal battles into bodies of work that continue to resonate long after their deaths.

Cobain is in the news again, what with the brilliant “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck” film debuting on HBO this week, and a recent major interview with Cobain's daughter, Frances Bean Cobain – the first she's ever given – in Rolling Stone. In a rather creepy coincidence, “Heaven Adores You,” a Kickstarter-funded documentary on Smith's life and work by filmmaker Nikolas Rossi, is opening almost simultaneously – the documentary will make its Buffalo debut at 7:30 p.m. Monday in the Screening Room Cinema Café (3131 Sheridan Drive, Amherst). It repeats at 9:30 p.m. May 29.

It's a frustrating truth that most of “Generation X's” most promising songwriters died young, and that heroin was close at hand in many of those instances. Cobain, Smith, Layne Staley, Andrew Wood – only Jeff Buckley seems to have died under drug-free circumstances. The scenes in “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck” that deal with heroin are truly horrifying.

“Heaven Adores You” deals with Smith's addiction in a similar fashion, but there is a major difference – Cobain was a major international rock star at the time of his death, while Smith remained a cult artist. He never really got that big, despite flirtations with the mainstream, most notably when his song “Miss Misery” was included in the Gus Van Sant film “Good Will Hunting.” It earned Smith an Oscar nomination and resulted in one of the most surreal Oscar performances of all time, with Smith performing the ruminative tune dressed all in white, among a field of nominees that included Celine Dion and her bloated “My Heart Will Go On.” (Dion won; Smith never recovered – not from the loss, but from the attention thrust upon him following the Oscar appearance, which he found strange and unsettling and incongruous with his own plans, which involved a life in music, not a brief affair with mega-stardom.)

“Heaven Adores You” is absolutely heartbreaking, there's just no two ways about it. Smith lived long enough to become what Cobain only hinted at becoming – a brilliant songsmith who could be as powerful with only his voice and guitar or piano as he was with a full rock band backing him. Cobain's obsessions with Frank Black of the Pixies, the Meat Puppets and the Melvins defined much of the Nirvana sound. Smith did similar work with his first big band, Heatmiser – Portland's answer to Nirvana, minus the massive commercial success and the bogus “spokesman for a generation” mantle – but he got the post-Pixies thing out of his system pretty quickly, and indulged his understanding of the melodic and harmonic pop genius of the Beatles in the creation of hauntingly beautiful and musically sophisticated pieces delivered in a gorgeous whisper of a voice, often built up into multitracked, harmony-heavy grandeur.

To be frank, Smith was several times the musician that Cobain was. (Which is not to suggest that Cobain's work was not intense and compelling in its own right. It was.) His catalog of solo albums runs from the hushed intimacy of his self-titled debut and its follow-up, “Either/Or,” to the full-blown chamber pop of his two career-defining masterpieces, “XO” and “Figure 8,” before concluding far too soon with the simultaneously thrilling and terrifying fugue state represented by the posthumous release “From a Basement on the Hill.”

There's the heartwarming and jubilant side of Smith, certainly. And then there's the desolation.

The latter haunted Smith's work, tempering the beauty of its construction with a melancholy that, by the time of his final album, “From a Basement on the Hill,” had turned inward and begun to devour the man himself. Smith battled depression. Hard drugs, which he only got into near the end, did not help. He lost the fight in 2003, at the age of 34. Ironically, aside from medications prescribed for depression, he had no drugs in his system at the time of his death.

Aside from all the drama, Smith's music is not merely the “beautiful bummer” it has so often been typecast as. He was a masterful writer, and although following his death, many have given in to the temptation to “read” all of his work as autobiographical, Smith left plenty of room in his songs for the listener to move in and inhabit them.

These are universal observations, ruminations on an examined life, and they show every sign of being passed on to new generations of listeners. There is something heartwarming and life-affirming in the honesty with which Smith viewed himself and his life, and the way he married those observations to absolutely heavenly melodies. Smith was touched. His work is among the very best produced by musicians of his generation. Everything he did is worth owning and listening to repeatedly.

If Cobain's work can be seen as an extended primal scream, Smith's might be heard as a tender, concerned and often soothing whisper.

So, yeah. I'm more of an Elliott Smith guy.

email: jmiers@buffnews.com