Top picks Vol. 1: Roman Candle – Elliot Smith

A dive into one of the best records ever made.


Brett Brose

Roman Candle is an intimate and raw glimpse into the depths of Elliot Smith’s mind.

On July 14, 1994, Steven Paul “Elliot” Smith released his debut studio album, Roman Candle. The album marked Smith’s departure from former rock band Heatmiser, as well as paved the way for his highly prolific solo career.

Before the release of Roman Candle, Smith began performing his songs at small venues around Portland, Oregon—short, acoustic ballads that contradicted much of the current soundscape—, and much to his surprise, a garnering wave of acclaim began to encircle his work, quickly surpassing the minute levels of fame that Smith was accustomed to. An off-the-whim decision found Smith submitting his first collection of songs to Cavity Search, an independent indie rock record label that was up and coming largely around the same time. The product was a 9-song, 30-minute glimpse into the darkest corners of Smith’s mind.

Roman Candle not only showcased Smith’s outlandish proficiency with the acoustic guitar, but also a visceral, masterful yet tragic affinity for songwriting. The namesake of the record and introductory track, “Roman Candle”, takes an immediate deep dive into the trauma of Smith’s past, detailing a tale of domestic abuse imparted upon him and his mother. His voice is a ghost, a gentle and pained whisper faltering over a frantically strummed melody as he painfully details his step-fathers manipulation and violence. Smith paints himself as a Roman Candle, a “head full of flames” ready to explode, repeating over and over again his entrenched desire to hurt the man he describes. As the instrumental takes over and Smith’s vocals dimmer to a hum, the imparting, chill-inducing phrase perfectly inaugurates listeners to their first Elliot Smith song: “Make him feel this pretty burn.”

The gloom of Smith’s wistfully spoken lyrics is unrelenting throughout. “Condor Ave ” narrates the tragic story of a woman killed in a car accident as she falls asleep behind the wheel, while the “No Name” tracks detail Smith’s depression and self-isolating tendencies, all over an acoustic guitar played with macabre efficiency. 

The last proper song on Roman Candle, the second-to-last track, is an explosive finale of hatred and spite; “Last Call” includes a booming electric guitar and powerfully wailed vocals, a huge departure from everything else the album had previously offered. Despite its relative explosiveness, the track is still a tragic showcasing of Smith’s emotional turmoil as lyrics spit through grimaced teeth detail spiteful descriptions of life. The track devolves into a pained refrain, where Smith begs; “I wanted her to tell me that she would never wake me.”

Brett Brose

Rating: 10/10

Best Song: Roman Candle/Last Call