Five and a half studio albums and one Oscar nomination into his career, 34-year-old singer-songwriter, Elliot Smith was found dead in his California home – his life taken by two knife wounds to the heart cautiously identified as suicide.
Twelve years after his mysterious death and eleven after his final work was released, folk rock musicians Seth Avett and Jessica Lea Mayfield have released an album that bravely reimagines Smith’s beautifully dark music; a 12-track cover album simply titled Seth Avett and Jessica Lea Mayfield Sing Elliot Smith.
No matter how respected one’s own music is, touching the work of Elliot Smith is a courageous, if not dangerous, uphill battle. Smith’s lyrics are so deeply personal, so individualized to the struggles of the writer that even the best cover artist risks unintentional insincerity. Pair this with the protective, tight-knit following that make up Elliot Smith’s still strong fan base and any musician is predisposed to criticism for attempting to borrow or change the one-of-a-kind work that is so unique to the late Mr. Misery.
Despite, or perhaps in light of, these obvious challenges, Avett and Mayfield manage to explore the artist’s sorrowing career with tender imagination that alters the work enough to insure some originality, while maintaining enough authenticity to avoid the slippery slope into failed imitation.
The vocals are strong and the instrumentals adequate, but the true success of the album is in the way that the stripped-down renditions frame Smith’s poetic lyrics. By removing Smith’s unmistakable vocals, the words stand on their own, making his music (perhaps unintentionally) accessible to a generation of singer-songwriter junkies that may not have belonged to the sad kids club that worshiped Smith’s work in the late ‘90s and early 2000s.
The addition of Mayfield lends a unique angle to the album, providing co-ed vocals to the lyrics so often pointed at the fleeing relationships in Smith’s short life. Mayfield’s earthy vocals feel in-tune with Smith’s words, particularly with Avett providing harmony on “Somebody That I Used to Know” and “Between Bars”.
It’s hard to separate Avett from the upbeat, folky vocals that have colored so much of his career as one-half of the Avett Brothers. Throwing him into the depressive, alcoholic, drug-addicted world of Elliot Smith is a hit-or-miss effort that occasionally results in shortchanging of the emotional vulnerability so imperative to Smith’s work. With this said, Avett’s clear, strong voice, acts as a poetic storyteller, shining particularly strong in the second half of the album, notably on “Pisteleh” and “Angeles”.
The album is a quintessential side project – a three year long labour of love recorded in homes, studios, and hotel rooms between tour dates and main project obligations. It is this dedication to Smith’s work that keeps the duo from falling into the trap of attempting to mimic Elliot Smith’s performance style. It’s not overly fresh, and it’s not overly creative, but it is an honest attempt by two talented songwriters to navigate nine years of irreplaceable creativity.