By the time of his passing last October, Elliott Smith had all but evaporated from my musical worldview. I have a fuzzy memory of seeing him perform stoned and befuddled one night at the departed NYC club Tramps somewhere between the releases of Either/Or and XO. He shambled on stage hours late and knocked out an uneven set of his standards before departing without much more than a word to his fans. From that point on my recollection of his career is as a series of momentary flashes: the brilliant performance of “Miss Misery” as he stood fragile and garbed in a white suit at the Academy Awards; an immediate attachment to his stellar major label debut XO; the manner in which indie music tastes had changed by the time the underappreciated Figure 8 came into our lives. Recently, all those feelings changed and became lucid once again.
I came across a copy of the upcoming From a Basement on the Hill a few weeks back and my love for Smith came into bloom. This posthumous set, which was near completion at the time of his death, may be Smith’s finest. Lyrically it is rich featuring nuanced double entendres, powerful alliteration and captivating storytelling. Smith’s word smithing is at its peak, on par with the savvy literate works of Aimee Mann. I’m sure much will be made in coming weeks to the numerous references to sudden or untimely death on this record but there is nothing maudlin or foreboding about these songs. In fact, I expect the joyous, albeit telling, “Fond Farewell” to be accepted as an instant classic.
One of the more surprising aspects of Basement is its sonic diversity. There are rave up electric guitar numbers (“Don’t Go Down”, “Strung Out Again” and “Shooting Star”) reminiscent of Smith’s work with Heatmiser as well as bare acoustic ballads (“Twilight” and “Last Hour”), which recall the beatific simplicity of his eponymous debut.
The centerpiece of the album is the slow burning “Kings Crossing”, which opens with snippets of barely decipherable conversation blending into a wall of guitar reverb and dulcet piano. Smith’s delivery is painfully honest and sincere as he hurls insightful, visual barbs like, “frustrated fireworks inside your head are going to deliver dark instead” and “I’ve got a heavy metal mouth/It holds obscenities/and I get my check from the trash treasury.” The track evolves into a rhythmic mid-tempo rocker that fades back into the same mist of reverb from which it came in the opening moments. Closing line “Don’t let me get carried away” is muttered over and over by Smith to close the track almost as a mantra to ward off the possibility of optimism and hopefulness for a better way of life.
As we come to an abrupt close to his career, perhaps this is the message of Elliott Smith. We’re taught to see and revel in the beauty of the mundane before being sent back into a cruel and unforgiving world. Smith has always painted his version of the world in a romantic, but ultimately hopeless stroke, the same sort of stroke that inhabited the imagery of one ‘80s Mancunian band of the same surname. As closing track “A Distorted Reality Is Now a Necessity to Be Free” wanes, the sense of loss becomes almost overwhelming. In part because we know that Smith has left this world, but moreover he left us behind, without the tools to live in the world he once inhabited.