October 28, 2004

Elliott Smith: From a Basement on the Hill

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The career of Elliott Smith probably would have gone relatively unnoticed to the public eye were it not for film. Whether it was his surreal performance of “Miss Misery” at the Academy Awards or Wes Anderson’s memorable use of “Needle in the Hay” as a suicide soundtrack in The Royal Tenenbaums, movies did more to advance Smith’s popularity than his ebullient pop melodies ever did.

It seems natural then that some kind of cinematic resolution would cap Smith’s tragic life. Hollywood types may have thought they had their chance to capitalize with From a Basement on the Hill, Smith’s final, posthumous release. Fortunately, for the sake of Elliott Smith’s memory, From a Basement provides no such plastic nostalgia to a life that ended far too soon.

Now, before cynics start making Tupac comparisons, From a Basement was nearly complete before Smith took his own life. This is no grab bag of unreleased B-sides. The final production work was entrusted to close friends and family, and little alteration was made to Smith’s original compositions. And, while it seems all too prescient and deliberate that the album is being released so close to the anniversary of Smith’s death, the integrity of the work seems undisturbed.

Through and through, From a Basement is vintage Smith, emoting his talent for moving between songs as dense as swells of rain and as bare and dry as ash. Likewise, the album balances its tiny, finger-picked moments with radiant pop orchestrals. But no matter how shimmering Smith’s melodies could be, his records always ended up being the most heartbreaking albums of the year. But it’s not an overabundant sadness. Rather, Smith’s sincere confessions of drug addiction, isolation, and human pathos always felt comforting enough so as not to alienate.

“Coast to Coast,” the opening track, rumbles like Peter Fonda’s easy rider above a swarming riff of guitars. “King’s Crossing” may be Smith’s best song since XO’s “Sweet Adeline,” with Smith’s freely associative vocals floating above tapping pianos, synthesizers that fold like accordions and an ethereal choir. And then “Twilight” wraps us in the painful folds of memory, tiptoeing along ambient cricket sounds and acoustic strumming so delicate it could break.

It’s impossible for me to say that there is anything bad on From a Basement, but I can’t really find any innovation. Smith revisits his common tropes of loss and pain in the three-minute harmonies he perfected with each album. Just as before, Smith’s sun-soaked guitars are just a lovely veneer on the lens to his troubled soul. But like his albums, From a Basement is not a vacuum of despair — every song may feel like a threnody on first listen, but each is somehow suffused with hope, however transient it may be.

Of course, music scribes and fans could argue until they asphyxiate over whether or not this material is arranged and finished in exactly the way Smith would have wanted. There simply is no answer to that question. But the middle of the album seems to suggest Smith’s integrity was preserved. At track six, “A Fond Farewell,” sits a blithely nostalgic song which, in light of Smith’s suicide, seems oddly clairvoyant and timely. Smith begs, “A little less than a human being / A little less than a happy high / A little less than a suicide / The only things that you really tried / This is not my life / It’s just a fond farewell to a friend / It’s not what I’m like / It’s just a fond farewell to a friend / I couldn’t get things right.” Now, with the past in mind, this song could have conveniently landed at the end of the album, providing closure to Smith’s final album. But that it lies in the most insignificant of spots — the middle — seems to suggest that just maybe, Smith’s vision was upheld.

By no means is From a Basement on the Hill Elliott Smith’s best work, but by no means is it even close to being his worst. And, while some may be disappointed that the final chapter in Smith’s canon provides no expansion of his sonic vocabulary, it’s just familiar enough to avoid redundancy and remind us of what a talent he was. If this is to be a swan song, then it’s certainly one that fans and newcomers alike can hold on to.

4 Stars

Archived article by Zach Jones
Sun Arts & Entertainment Editor