Bookend reissues of albums by one of the most tortured songwriting voices of his generation, Elliott Smith continues to move with his music long after he's gone.
First things’ first: I’m not giving these records any positive points as reissues. I’m sure Kill Rock Stars is pleased as punch to have the rights to the late Elliott Smith’s first and last albums, but aside from a remastering job on Roman Candle that tweaks the volume and tones down the guitar squeaks between Smith’s chord changes, the albums are straightforward repressings, providing nothing else to warrant people who already own the albums to acquire them in these newest incarnations. In this day and age when most moderately-popular albums are freely available via file sharing and burning a copy from your friends’ CDs, labels really need to offer more when it comes to reissuing past releases. It’s not like there isn’t a wealth of unreleased Elliott Smith material waiting to see the light of day, either.
So, with that out of the way, let’s focus on the one thing that really matters, the music. I’ve never been an avid Smith follower, although I did quite like some tracks off of From a Basement on the Hill when it was originally released in 2004, not long after Smith allegedly took his own life in 2003. Listening to the records that bookmarked his solo career isn’t the most illuminating look as his body of work, for it quite naturally excludes the avenues he explored in the intervening releases, but it does provide listeners with a decent comparison of where the indie rock singer-songwriter started and where he ended up (well, sort of; more on that later).
Of the two, Smith’s solo debut Roman Candle (originally released on Cavity Search in 1994) is the most immediately palatable, and will be the best entry point for folks being introduced to the man’s talent as an artist for the first time. An assemblage of four-track demos recorded while Smith was still in the post-hardcore band Heatmiser, Roman Candle is a deliciously dexterous display of Smith’s guitar talents, filled to the brim with folksy shuffles, exquisite finger-picking, and beautiful arpeggios. While Smith’s lyrical songcraft is understandably still not fully-developed, Roman Candle does provide ample display of Smith’s gift for lyrical imagery and storytelling, particularly in “Condor Ave” and “Drive All Over Town”. Even the simpler songs pack a punch: the title tracks’ lyrics may on the surface seem slight compared to the backing music, but pointed phrases like the chorus of “I want to hurt him / I want to give him pain” hint at the deep-seated anger that lurks below. Already back then, it was clear that Smith had some personal demons he was wrestling with, even if he wasn’t as forthcoming about what exactly they were as he would be in his later work. On reflection, it’s easy to see why critics clung to the release as a promising debut by an emerging songwriting voice.
Fast forward a decade, and From a Basement on the Hill is released on Anti- Records as Smith’s last will and testament. Conceived by Smith as a double-album in the vein of "The White Album" by his idols, the Beatles, From a Basement on the Hill was unfinished when the musician died. As a result, his family oversaw its completion, trimming the record down to single disc form and pulling in Rob Schanpf and Joanna Bolme to produce and mix it. Whatever your opinion of the record, it’s important to bear in mind that this is certainly not the final product Smith intended to release. Still, while Smith intended to spruce up many of the songs here, the basic framework of each tune is present regardless.
In contrast to Roman Candle, the arrangements on From a Basement on the Hill are pretty standard pop rock, albeit roughed up a bit. Smith’s guitar tracks are divided neatly between rhythm and lead guitar roles with little of the intricacy that permeated his debut present. Instead, the lumbering grooves house chords that are often simply strummed, as well as chord changes that are clearly signposted. And true to his inspiration, Smith’s vocals are peppered with Beatleseque melodies, drawing primarily not just from “The White Album”, but Abbey Road as well, to the point where listening to the tracks becomes an ongoing game of “spot the homage”. As such, the music on this record doesn’t have as much of a distinctive flavor as its fellow reissue does.
We can forgive the music for not being as stunning as that on Roman Candle, because From a Basement on the Hill is primary focused on showcasing Smith as a mature lyricist, one who was deft yet uninhibited in his choice of words. Over the course of his solo career, Smith became consumed by addictions to various prescription and illegal drugs, battling suicidal thoughts on a daily basis. As From a Basement on the Hill was written and recorded during a period where Smith made a concentrated decision to sober up, Smith took the album’s words as an opportunity to vent about his personal hell. Every song is explicitly about drug addiction, depression, and/or the abuse Smith suffered at the hands of his stepfather as a youth. From the titles -- “Let’s Get Lost”, “Strung Out Again” -- to the revealing accounts of junkie living in “Fond Farewell” and “A Distorted Reality Is a Necessity to be Free”, Smith can be ashamed, contemplative, and matter-of-fact about everything he suffered in the way only a person taking stock at the end of his of his life can. Listening to Smith sing “You don't deserve to be lonely / But those drugs you got won't make you feel better / Pretty soon you'll find it's the only / Little part of your life you're keeping together” on “Twilight” in his fragile, eternally sad tone, I instinctively want to call him up to give him a shoulder to cry upon. But I can’t, making the album devastatingly heartbreaking.
In a 2004 Spin article about the life and death of Elliott Smith, an executive at his former label DreamWorks described the singer as “the John Lennon and Bob Dylan of my generation”. I don’t think anyone who isn’t already a Smith devotee is going to agree with that. Despite his obvious talent, he wasn’t a genius, and I don’t see his music ever gaining wider cultural resonance. Furthermore, the full impact of these albums (particularly From a Basement on the Hill) isn’t imparted upon the listener unless he or she is willing to get up close and personal with them. Smith’s music isn’t really meant to work as tracks shuffled on an MP3 player, or as tunes wedged amongst radio station playlists. These albums work best when you have the lights dimmed, the headphones on, and a lyric sheet at the ready. These are less songs than frank, artful confessions by a troubled friend, and if you can bear hearing words that would worry you sick if you they came from anyone you knew personally, you will be greatly rewarded. I think it’s a bit much to say Elliott Smith is a songwriter for the ages, but he was compellingly sympathetic, and damn good at what he did. Damn good.