From a Basement on the Hill (Anti)
A couple months ago, in anticipation of Elliott Smith’s then-unreleased new album, “From a Basement on the Hill” my best pal, Jake Weisman, said this: I can't even imagine what it sounds like. It's like trying to imagine a new primary color or a note a whole step between E and F, completely it's own, yet somehow has never been played.
With art like Elliott's though, when I hear it, instead of being made in nineteen-ninety something, the songs sound like they've existed forever just waiting to be heard. Like maybe there's a certain undetectable amount of his voice and melodies in rays of light or layers of the atmosphere that all this time just required a mind more refined than our own to harness. Elliott would hate all this hyperbole, I bet.
Probably. But I love it. And I opened this review with that because I can’t think of a better way to say it.
By now, we’ve all read the reviews, we’ve heard the new songs. We’ve been analyzing the hell out of it, looking for clues. One could drive themselves crazy trying to understand why now—when things seemed to be getting better? What was the tipping point?
It’s time to let it go. To let go the question of whether or not every album was artful fantasy or a diary of addiction and depression and suicide dreams. Whether or not every song on this last jewel, From a Basement on the Hill [Anti] was a hint at what Elliott Smith would do to himself on that awful October 21st last year (“I can’t prepare for death more than I already have” he sung on “King’s Crossing”). None of it really matters now, does it? Nothing changes. Smith is gone, this is it, and Basement is the end of the road for one of the greatest singer/songwriters since John Lennon.
Upon first listen, the album sonically resembles Figure 8, only a little more stripped-down in production, while at the same time being more experimental and lavish in samples and found sounds, such as the opening to the dark and wonderful “King’s Crossing” and the closing of “Coast to Coast” with TV evangelists and maniacal preachers—or is that infomercials? Same difference, Elliott may have thought.
Before his death, it’s clear that Elliott was reaching out into new territory, freshening the well-worn ideas of his old and familiar territory in the way one might redecorate an old house. Whether you’re talking about the loss of faith in “Last Hour,” “Coast to Coast”'s bitter words on that ironic, poppy, happy beat, or the sweet, sad disappointment on a Beatles’-like arrangement “Fond Farewell” (where he sings in ironic beauty, “veins full of disappearing ink/ vomiting in the kitchen sink/ disconnecting from the missing link / this is not my life”) or “Pretty (Ugly Before)” when you can’t quite believe that he believes his own words (“And I feel pretty, pretty enough for you. I felt so ugly before, I didn’t know what to do…”)–it’s those same wonderful walls, that same leaky ceiling that doesn’t offer enough protection from the emotional elements, the same cracked and unlevel foundation all Elliott fans have learned to build their hopes upon--all dressed in new sonic paint and carpet.
A few songs on the album seem to have been put there intentionally, to hook the more rocking types: “Coast to Coast”, “Shooting Star,” “Don’t Go Down” and “A Distorted Reality is Now a Necessity to Be Free” are—beyond the painful and poetic lyrics--full of strong, lush guitar and drum beats to keep the feet moving. It’s almost like a dirty trick; moving from the strength of the aforementioned and into something like, “Strung Out Again,” where he sings in a voice that could be crying, "I know my place, hate my face, I know how I begin, and how I’ll end…strung out again.”
So, back to pointless analysis: In his song, “Twilight,” he sings, “I’m tired of being down, I got no fight”. That song is followed by “Passing Feeling” (“And the help I require, just to exist at all. Took a long time to stand, took an hour to fall. I’m stuck here waiting, for a passing feeling”). In “In a Distorted Reality is now a Necessity to be Free” he finally vents even political disgust: “So disappointing. First I put it all down to luck. God knows why my country don’t give a fuck.”
Was that it? Did GW push him over the edge? Maybe so, but it’s too late now.
Does From a Basement on the Hill better all the Elliott Smith albums to date? It’s hard to say. When my personal favorites, Either/Or [Kill Rock Stars] and XO [Dreamworks] came out, one had the rush of pleasure, like an addict, of the idea that more of this magical music would follow in a year or two. We’ll never feel that anticipation again, and that sucks. But Elliott Smith did not die in vain. Like an angel, a martyr, a Christ, even—he gave his whole life for music and for his gift to the world. From a Basement on the Hill, and all his music, are beautiful gifts that those who ‘get’ him will treasure til the day they die. His music was almost too beautiful, and this world was too painful for Elliott Smith to go on. Let’s do our part to make things better. May he rest in peace.
Read NT's review of the Elliott Smith biography Elliott Smith and the Big Nothing