It’s difficult to imagine a finer or more fitting tribute to the songwriting genius of Elliott Smith than the new release Seth Avett & Jessica Lea Mayfield Sing Elliott Smith. Smith, who died tragically in 2003, left behind a gorgeous body of work that plumbs the abyss of alienation and addiction, in songs whose compositional genius and pristine lyricism remain, to a large degree, underappreciated beyond his core fan base and musicians, like Avett and Mayfield, who recognize his rare gifts.
Despite — and, wickedly enough, thanks to — his struggles with heroin, Smith forged a solo career marked by a kind of scorched, ferocious integrity that forever flirted with the dark side, and his songs emerge from some personal hell as gems burnt clean of cant and caterwaul. Combining a poet’s sense of image and metaphor with an ear for pop phrasing that recalls the Beatles and Dylan, Smith wrote sad songs that transcend their own sordid subject matter, achieving the besieged grace of pure art.
Reaching into the rich, textured trove of Smith’s music, Avett and Mayfield have selected a cycle of songs that at once captures the depth and breadth of his talents, while also perfectly suiting their own. Years in the making, this album functions as a great (re)introduction to Smith’s music — a respectful, deeply felt tribute to the legacy of a fellow great musician. But it is also a lovely album in its own right, revealing new layers to Smith’s songwriting without losing a thread of his artistic intent.
From the early classic “Between the Bars,” which opens the album, on through posthumously released classics like “Fond Farewell” and “Twilight,” Avett and Mayfield bring an abiding passion and musical economy to their performance, teasing out the universal blues that hide in Smith’s idiosyncratic confessionals. Mayfield’s honey-sweet voice, so excruciatingly evident on tracks like “Angel in the Snow,” is the perfect counterpoint to the crackling vulnerability of Avett, whose soaring vocals turn “Somebody That I Used to Know” into a desperate plea. And when the two of them harmonize, the results are pure lovely.
What’s most amazing is the way Mayfield and Avett are capable of taking what’s most hermetic and idiosyncratic about Smith’s work — the sly drug analogies, the agonized kicks, the rococo junky spirals of immaculately damned logic — and finding their own language of love and loss. Seth Avett & Jessica Lea Mayfield Sing Elliott Smith is a labor of love. More than that, it is a nod to a tragic artist whose music, so painfully and delicately wrought, so brutally truthful and truthfully pretty, is its own redemption.
“An Evening with Seth Avett and Jessica Lea Mayfield” performing the songs of Elliott Smith takes place 8pm Friday, March 27, at Portland’s Crystal Ballroom; $45, all ages, tickets at etix.com.
Photo by Crackerfarm