The first known (or at least well-publicized) biography of Elliott Smith is something of a curiosity in that it takes pains to demonstrate an appreciation for the artist's work while simultaneously embracing the sort of crass commercialism that, essentially, sells books. Author Benjamin Nugent clearly has a soft spot for his subject, going as far as to justify Smith's more erratic moments as the inevitable collision between genius and so-called "normal" behavior, but there remains a vast disparity between what may be construed as a demonstration of admiration as opposed to one of respect.
Make no mistake about it: "Elliott Smith and the Big Nothing" was meant to capitalize on the one-year anniversary of Smith's death. The book has all the hallmarks of a rush-job: brevity (at 230 pages - index included - it's no "War and Peace"), inexcusable grammatical errors (copy editor, anyone?) and an unwieldy use of interview excerpts (glacier-sized chunks, really) from a scant handful of Smith's friends and acquaintances. While Nugent does get a break on this last point due to the fact that Smith's family and closest collaborators declined to comment for the book, the narrative still suffers from what can only be described as a mind-numbing overreliance on "talking heads" to tell Smith's story. Anyone familiar with Smith's work or his public persona(s) will tell you that an Elliott Smith biography couldn't possibly be boring, but this one is. "Big Nothing" offers shockingly few "revelations" about Smith's life that can't already be found on the Internet.
It's hard to imagine what sort of audience "Elliott Smith and the Big Nothing" is shooting for. Die-hard Smith fans will likely bristle at the regurgitation of previously known "facts," and the disjointed quality of the narrative - that it fails to illustrate how truly great Smith's work is while repeatedly acknowledging his genius - hardly seems capable of turning newbies onto his music. It's one thing to be told how good something is, and a completely different thing to experience it and know firsthand.
That said, the best introduction to Elliott Smith will always be his music. "Elliott Smith," "Either/Or," "XO," "Figure 8" - all of these are classic albums that demonstrate an astonishing range of talent and musical growth over the five or six years in which they were produced. Smith was an artist whose innate sensibilities and seeming candor in dealing with life's difficulties - failed romances, abuse, addiction - allowed his work to transcend what we've come to know as popular music. It's no mistake that Elliott Smith is so often compared to The Beatles; this guy was the real deal.
All things considered, I can't honestly say that "Big Nothing" is a bad book, per se, just a bit underwhelming from a fan's perspective. This may not be entirely fair to Nugent, of course, but it is my contention that the Elliott Smith fans who gobble up "Big Nothing" first will take away little more insight than they brought to it. If nothing else, Nugent's book seems premature. If you're reading this, Ben, I hope you have an opportunity to speak with those closest to Smith somewhere down the line and make "Big Nothing" the great book everyone wants it to be.