From a Basement on the Hill
h we’re so very precious, you and I
And everything that you do makes me want to die
Oh I just told the biggest lie
I just told the biggest lie
The biggest lie
-Elliott Smith, “The Biggest Lie”, from Elliott Smith
Has any modern songwriter proven to be as gloomily, uncomfortably prescient as Elliott Smith? Biggie and Tupac, maybe, but I can’t name another. Over a ten year solo career in which he battled heroin and self-loathing, he dropped numerous hints of an impending demise, whether by drugs, depression or hara-kiri. He recorded the type of song that one film immortalized in a scene of attempted suicide, a few years before he successfully attempted his own.
Thus, it makes sense the handwritten fan notes inscribed upon Elliott’s memorial wall on Sunset Blvd. feature an endless array of his own quotes. “I’m never gonna know you now, but I’m gonna love you anyhow,” indeed. With Elliott, the boundary between the artist and the fan was ephemeral; his music, in its hushed, morose universality, spoke to and for every disappointment. To claim, as some have, that his death/suicide was an inevitability, to which even the most cursory study of his lyrics can attest, makes us all feel a little responsible.
“Gimme one good reason not to do it / Don’t let me get carried away,” Elliott begs on the posthumous From a Basement on the Hill, in a song where he also proclaims: “I can‘t prepare for death any more than I already have.” Well, here’s a reason not to do it: you’ve made the most complex, assured, confident music of your career.
The album’s misleading title implies the classic Elliott aesthetic of plucked acoustic strings and a fractured, shy-kid voice, recorded surreptitiously on a four-track. From a Basement on the Hill instead skates along the path of Figure 8’s relative bombast, exchanging Beatlesque song structure for ambient soundscapes, crashing drums and moments of loud, classic rock guitar squall. Lacking easy melodies and cloying melancholia, it’s easily the most difficult album in the Elliott Smith oeuvre.
Is there any precedent for the pounding dirge “Don’t Go Down,” or the meandering intro and shape shifting piano symphonics of “King’s Crossing”? What about the aptly titled, thirty-second ambient interlude “Ostriches and Chirping”? The traditional acoustic songs are also superb, providing quiet moments of solace that complement Elliott’s musical reinvention.
From a Basement on the Hill is Elliott’s most prescient album by a mile. Look at the song titles: “Strung Out Again,” “Fond Farewell (To A Friend),” “Twilight,” “Last Hour,” etc. Conversely, and perhaps even more unfortunate in retrospect, the album features twinges of hope. The refrain of “Pretty (Ugly Before),” also released as a single in 2003, is the most optimistic lyric he’s ever written:
Sunshine, been keeping me up for days
There is no night time, it's only a passing phase
And I feel pretty, pretty enough for you
I felt so ugly before, I didn't know what to do
This is not the Elliott Smith who wrote “Needle in the Hay”. This is Elliott in love, with a girl and with a city whose perfect weather seemed to mock his every emotion. This record is about climbing out of the basement, ditching primitivism, and showing the sunshine that he is the music maker and he is the dreamer of lost dreams.
From a Basement on the Hill is a far better album than it has any right to be, with its bizarre sequencing (Elliott left the album out of order, and producers Rob Schnapf and Joanna Bolme seem to prefer an unsubtle soft/loud/soft/loud/soft/loud scheme) and improbable ambitions. Unlike Either/Or or XO, fine albums that inevitably sound like relics of high school ennui, From a Basement on the Hill will continue to startle with its craftsmanship for the long haul. Squandered promise shouldn’t sound this beautiful.
STYLUSMAGAZINE.COM’S ALBUM OF THE WEEK – OCTOBER 25 – OCTOBER 31, 2004
Reviewed by: Akiva Gottlieb
Reviewed on: 2004-10-25