In the 10 years since Elliott Smith died of a self-inflicted stab wound to the chest, the one thing we've collectively come to understand about the singer-songwriter is that he may never be understood. William Todd Schultz encapsulates this sentiment in the title of his biography on Smith, a mishearing of lyrics from his song "Go By." The lasting image of Smith is that of the tragic poet laureate of Generation X, a quiet, introspective troubadour who refused to be known as a "folkie." Torment Saint (Bloomsbury, 339 pages, $27) spills plenty of ink in an attempt to pry out the "real" Smith, but the conclusion remains the same: We may never know.
Like any biography of a dead rock star, the chapters of Smith's life—his childhood in Texas, his high-school and post-college years in dreary Portland—are parsed and analyzed ad nauseam. Schultz, whose prior works have been mostly of the "psychobiographical" genre, is ultimately unsuccessful in leaving no stone unturned as he probes the gray areas of Smith's life in Texas. There are numerous references to Smith enduring abuse, but you'd be better off analyzing Smith's lyrics at length—as Schultz does, to droning effect—than seeking clear-cut answers from interviews with Smith's inner circle. Some stones would rather not be overturned.
In crafting a story to which everyone already knows the ending, Schultz takes a great deal of care in painting vivid scenes of Smith's creative blossoming in the mid-'90s, around the time his rock band, Heatmiser, was ascending from the underground and simultaneously imploding under the weight of Smith's rising solo career. The imagery of Portland in the 1990s as the locus of sad-bastard songwriters chased by the grip of alcohol, drugs and depression is stirring in its specificity: Local readers will undoubtedly be tempted to throw on Either/Or and walk around Southeast Division Street or what's now the Pearl District and wonder what Smith saw in these environs that made him so unbelievably destitute.
Given the guarded nature of the hard facts that have left holes in "the Smith myth," as Schultz calls it, it's unfair to slight the author for the rambling conjecture about lyrical metaphors he uses to glue various parts of Smith's early life in place. With the exception of an overly effusive introduction casting Smith as a greater exemplar of tortured songcraft than either Nick Drake or Kurt Cobain before him, Torment Saint is a highly readable, headlong dive into the far end of a tormented artist's head space. It's a cloudy, gray place at times, but even the saddest, darkest moments contain a beautiful silver lining.