“Untitled Melancholy Song”—that could be the working title of two thirds of the songs in Elliott Smith’s catalog. On Heaven Adores You, it’s the title of an electric-guitar instrumental from 1995 that Smith recorded on the same cassette as an early version of “Last Call” from Roman Candle. It’s complex and intense, more like what Smith was doing in the band Heatmiser at the time. If you’re an Elliott Smith fan, it’s cool to hear.
The film Heaven Adores You is a sort of oral biography of Smith, who died of apparent suicide in 2003. The 15-track album mixes juvenilia, instrumentals, demos and alternate and live versions of songs from throughout Smith’s career. It’s not the exhumed trainwreck of Montage Of Heck, the Kurt Cobain soundtrack—these are all complete songs, and even the two that Smith recorded when he was 14 or so (“Untitled Guitar Finger Picking” and “I Love My Room”) display his impressive skills as an acoustic guitarist, piano-player and/or writer.
The album functions as a shadow biography and as a treat for Smith’s fans, which should be all of us. Every one of Smith’s albums is essential because of his unerring sense of melody, his complex instrumental arrangements, his lyrics that range from open-hearted love to desperate anger, but always with a pure intensity.
But Heaven Adores You is not a starting point: It means the most if you can hear in “Don’t Call Me Billy” an early but radically different version of “Fear City,” a song from the Either/Or sessions that appeared on posthumous collection New Moon. Or, if you want to do an A/B comparison of the lyrics to this version of “Coast To Coast” and the one on From A Basement On A Hill.
Several of Smith’s best-known songs are here: “Say Yes” in a sweet solo live version (someone in the audience says, “Play the one about the girl,” to request it); “Miss Misery” from Late Night With Conan O’Brien, a few days before his uncomfortable performance on the 1998 Oscars; “Christian Brothers” in a version done with Heatmiser that rocks harder than the one on his self-titled album.
Superfans will always want more: I’d love to have a track of him playing with jazz pianist Brad Mehldau from The Jon Brion Show (check for it on YouTube). But Heaven Adores You accomplishes its purpose: It reminds us of the evolution of a favorite artist and gives us the gift of new music, even if what it does best is send us back to the original albums to say yes to them all over again.