From A Basement on the Hill (Anti-, 2004)
by Elliott Smith
originally published at Dusted Magazine
A basement on the hill is in a way the perfect metaphor for Elliott Smith's final album: it's the idea of being low in a high place, of the dark cloud looming within its anecdotal silver lining. To extend this interpretation to the rest of Smith's work would be an oversimplification, if only because his prior recordings more often chronicle being low in low places, but it certainly fits these fifteen songs which collectively bear the inescapable specter of his suicide late last year. He was drug-free when he started recording From A Basement On The Hill, according to all sources, stable and happy, comparatively free of the demons that line the darker corners of his earlier records. And true enough, you can hear the hill in the new songs; those that begin the album in particular, like the jangly "Coast To Coast" and the sunny "Pretty (Ugly Before)," are among his least reserved and most comfortable yet. But those initial points of light fade before long, leaving behind an album essentially as unsettled as his others and, necessarily, much more unsettling.
Reading Basement as a suicide note is too easy and too tempting, and ultimately foolish considering that each song on it had been part of Smith's live repertoire for some time, but there is a genuine gravity to this record that surpasses even the darkest moments of his older ones. Smith's muses were always infirmity and addiction – the gloomy depressions of drugs in the early days and love later on – but it rarely pointed to anything more terminal than a sort of spiteful, narcotized inertia. Basement, by contrast, confronts death head-on at seemingly every turn, sometimes with the same nonchalant response he had toward heroin addiction ("Needle In The Hay," "Cupid's Trick") and sometimes with an equally disturbing sense of acceptance. "King's Crossing," probably the best rock song Smith ever wrote, begins its second verse with the intonation ”I can't prepare for death any more than I already have,” and ends with a chillingly prophetic repetition: ”Instruments shine on a silver tray / Don't let me get carried away / Don't let me get carried away / Don't let me be carried away.”
If "King's Crossing" is the blaze of glory in which Smith should have left this world, the album's other references to mortality are, more characteristically, whimpers. "A Fond Farewell," a fairly old song spruced up just slightly, is filled with images of death and even suicide, yet it doesn't have the same bite, whether or not you take him at his word when he concludes each verse with a simple, defeated "this is not my life." "Little One," however, has a nearly inaudible finality to it, between the sparse guitar occasionally looped backward on itself and the same falsetto ghost choir that closed XO with "I Didn't Understand." It's full of silent spaces, still and heavy; where fret noises sprinkled the quiet songs on every other album, here there is something noticeably missing. In fact, there are empty spaces throughout the album. Many songs spend 30 seconds or more on quiet ambient noise or hazy chatter before they start, sometimes after they end too; "King's Crossing" is just a vaguely tuned rumbling for a full minute before it fades in on a piano waltz that barely connects with the actual song. Likewise, it's followed by a half-minute track called "Ostriches & Chirping," an inexplicable interlude of muted carnival music and chirping birds.
But more often than not the formlessness fits. On the whole Basement is noisy and rough, and often sounds more like the best record Heatmiser never made than the next Elliott Smith album. It uses distortion where Figure 8 and XO used orchestral arrangements, and eschews the sublime simplicity of either/or and its predecessors: it's at once less intricate and more complicated. The songs, touched up by producer Rob Schnapf and Smith’s ex Joanna Bolme, are grittier on an elemental level. Often it suits them quite well, like "Shooting Star" and "Coast To Coast," where Smith sounds as free and bold as he ever did. On others, though, it amplifies his missteps; "Don't Go Down" and "Strung Out Again" aren't especially compelling songs to begin with, but here they also lack a certain synthesis, as though you can almost hear half of them added after the fact. While Schnapf and Bolme do the best anyone could do under the circumstances, the more elaborately arranged songs have a tendency to feel curated rather than realized.
The hushed intimacy that marked Smith's solo work since he split from Heatmiser is represented equally thoroughly, though, and by and large it's just as beautiful and affecting as ever. "Last Hour" and "Twilight" wouldn't seem out of place on his earliest records, all shy guitar strumming and poetic reticence, while others like "Let's Get Lost" and the excellent "Memory Lane" recall the more grandiose and vaguely baroque style he cultivated on later ones. The handful of songs neither quiet nor noisy are among Basement's least affecting, as they've tended to be on his recent releases – "A Passing Feeling" and "A Distorted Reality Is Now A Necessity To Be Free" (the latter a ruralized and altogether more vindictive update of the version that appeared on last year's "Pretty (Ugly Before)" 7") work about as well as any of his other neo-White Album songs, but pale in comparison to the emotional resonance of the album's extremes. At certain moments Smith sounds more fragile than he's ever been, but it's hard to tell if the tragic aspect his wavering near-whisper takes on is really there, or just shaded that way by his death.
Tragedy has its way of making heroism a foregone conclusion, but removed from all the context From A Basement On The Hill is no more and no less than another Elliott Smith album; rougher around the edges, and perhaps less structurally cohesive, but still exactly what we've come to expect. It's not the best album of the year, and probably not the best in his catalog either, but he's in as fine a form as ever – still melancholy, still fond of solemn waltzes and wry wordplay, still capable of writing songs pierced throughout with unassuming beauty. Even if all its depth and charm only add up to cold comfort, as the last document from a brilliant artist, it suits his legacy as well as anything really could.back