Heaven Adores You [Original Motion Picture Soundtrack]
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Without question, the late singer-songwriter and multi-dimensionally gifted instrumentalist Elliott Smith was one of the most unlikely, yet most deserving, musical heroes of the past 25 years. During the early phase of his career, and due to his soul-stirring array of minimalist and melodic guitar-driven compositions, hushed vocals, and contemplative story-weaving, the soft-spoken troubadour quietly cultivated an intensely loyal following across the underground and indie rock circuits.
As the co-founder of the Portland-based band Heatmiser, Smith and his bandmates released three excellent albums from 1993 to 1996. In parallel to his ensemble work during this period, he also recorded three critically lauded solo albums, with 1997’s Either/Or universally considered one of his greatest recordings, if not the greatest of all.
A handful of months after Either/Or’s release, Smith experienced an unexpected career breakthrough, when six of his compositions—including three lifted from Either/Or—were featured on the soundtrack to the Ben Affleck & Matt Damon penned, Gus Van Sant directed film Good Will Hunting. Smith’s gentle, introspective songs proved the perfect musical accompaniment to the portrayal of the reluctant genius and psychological isolation of the Oscar-winning film’s perplexing protagonist, Will Hunting.
Smith’s plaintively poignant “Miss Misery” was nominated for Best Original Song at the 1997 Academy Awards, but alas, the honor was ultimately bestowed upon “My Heart Will Go On,” Celine Dion’s overwrought and ubiquitously played anthem from the epic Titanic. Reflecting upon his performance of the song at the Oscar ceremony during a 2003 Under the Radar interview, Smith confessed that “It was kind of ridiculous. But at a certain point I threw myself into it because it seemed to make my friends happy. It was surreal enough that it didn’t seem like it happened to me."
Propelled by the visibility he garnered as the result of Either/Or and Good Will Hunting, Smith signed a record deal with the major label DreamWorks, and subsequently released two fantastic albums, XO (1998) and Figure 8 (2000), both of which were considerably more polished and meticulously produced than their leaner-budget, indie label precursors. His stardom in full-on ascent mode, the ever-humble Smith welcomed his newfound fame with skepticism, once admitting that “I'm the wrong kind of person to be really big and famous.”
Throughout his career, Smith waged a very personal battle with anxiety and depression, alcoholism and drug addiction. So it was presumably not a complete shock for those who knew and/or admired him when they learned of his death, from two allegedly self-inflicted stab wounds to his chest, on October 21, 2003. Though his death was officially ruled a suicide based on the evidence at hand, there are some who still suspect foul play to this day.
An emotionally gripping, thoroughly researched, and masterfully produced celebration of Smith’s life, legacy and music, the documentary film Heaven Adores You premiered at the San Francisco International Film Festival in May 2014, and was then distributed worldwide one year later in May 2015. Directed by Nickolas Rossi and partly facilitated by a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign, the critically applauded tribute includes archived interview and performance footage of Smith himself, juxtaposed with the insightful recollections of friends, family, fellow musicians, journalists, and industry execs, among many others.
During a 2014 interview conducted by Portland musician Logan Lynn on behalf of The Huffington Post, Rossi surmised that “I bet [Elliott would] be embarrassed or incredibly modest about the whole thing. I often thought about what it would be like if he was still alive and how it would be to make a film about him now. I imagine having to call Elliott on the phone and ask him things and can always hear this quiet, hesitant, modest guy.” Rossi added that “Elliott's music is what drives the story of his life—and his music is incredible.” Indeed it is.
Nearly a year after Heaven Adores You hit theaters, the carefully curated companion soundtrack is finally set to arrive (on February 5th). Marking Smith’s third posthumous release following 2004’s From a Basement on a Hill and 2007’s double-disc collection New Moon, this generous 20-track set compiles previously unheard songs—including a few in their original, less studio-enhanced form—alongside rare demos, alternate takes, instrumentals, and more.
The album opens with “Untitled Guitar Finger Picking,” an unearthed relic from the 14 year-old Smith’s earliest known recordings and the first of five daydream-inducing instrumental compositions featured here. Though an abbreviated 84 seconds long, the acoustic instrumental contains harbingers of what would become Smith’s signature melancholic guitar arrangements. The track testifies that even from an early age, Smith was preternaturally adept at conveying emotion in the simplest, most direct manner, devoid of superfluous embellishment and extravagance.
A trio of alternate versions comprise some of the soundtrack’s finest moments, beginning with the beefed-up, Heatmiser-blessed version of the resonant “Christian Brothers,” which was originally included in more stripped-down form on Smith’s 1995 self-titled sophomore album. The script is then flipped on Smith’s less polished, but gratifying solo rendition of Heatmiser’s “Plainclothes Man,” from the band’s 1996 album Mic City Sons. His more spartan acoustic take on “Son of Sam,” the second and final single released from Figure 8, is wonderful as well.
Other highlights include Smith’s live version of “Say Yes” from the 1997 Yo Yo A Go Go Festival in Olympia, WA and his 1998 performance of “Miss Misery” on Late Night with Conan O’Brien, his first-ever network television appearance. The collection concludes with the whimsical, intentionally campy piano jaunt “I Love My Room,” recorded by a precociously gifted and musically adventurous 15-year old Smith in 1984. Arguably the most intriguing track of the entire suite, the song can also be heard during Heaven Adores You’s closing credits.
Soundtrack collections, and particularly those developed for artist-focused biopics and documentaries, can often be a tricky proposition. Most of these efforts invariably become either predictable or redundant “Greatest Hits” sets or lazily cobbled-together, hodge-podge compilations with little more than cursory attention given to their sequencing and narrative thread. But the Heaven Adores You soundtrack proves the antithesis of these common soundtrack syndromes, and represents a superb exploration of Smith’s evolution as a songwriter. Those who already adore Smith’s music—and those who are interested in learning more—are well-advised to make room in their collections for this rewarding, if not indispensable, addition to Smith’s prolific recorded repertoire.
Notable Tracks: “Christian Brothers” (with Heatmiser) | “I Love My Room” | “Plainclothes Man” (Solo Version) | “Untitled Guitar Finger Picking”