Elliott Smith,
From a Basement on the Hill
(Anti Inc., 2004)

Elliott Smith first caught my ear as a result of his musical contributions to the film Good Will Hunting, for which he received an Academy Award nomination. Since that time I've picked up a number of his albums including Either/Or (1997), XO (1998) and his superb penultimate release Figure 8 (2000). Then in late October 2003 came the tragic news that Smith had committed suicide. He'd been working on a new album at the time of his death and a group of his friends and members of his family decided that his final artistic efforts needed to be completed and released. The result is From a Basement on the Hill.

I must admit, I was somewhat skeptical. How far along in the recording process were these new tracks before Smith bowed out? Would they feel incomplete, disjointed? Would they disappoint?

I needn't have worried. While a few tracks do feel like works in progress ("King's Crossing," "Little One"), for the most part this album is everything any fan of Smith's work could have hoped for. Launching with the powerful, electric track "Coast to Coast," From a Basement on the Hill explores a variety of musical identities. Track two, "Let's Get Lost," includes melodic reminiscences of CSN&Y's "Find the Cost of Freedom," but marries it to a more personal lyric, "burning every bridge that I cross, to find some beautiful place to get lost." Meanwhile, "Ostrich & Chirping" is pure electronic silliness and "Don't Go Down" is a mid-tempo rocker with echoes of Abbey Road-era John Lennon.

For the most part, From a Basement on the Hill is a dark, brooding work, full of raw emotion and deceptively cheerful melodies. As Smith sings, on the jaunty "Memory Lane," "Isolation pushes past self-hatred, guilt and shame/to a place where suffering is just a game ... your little house on memory lane." This isn't an album that will lift a listener's spirits. Instead, it's a glimpse into the troubled soul of a gifted musician, a last look at the transcendent art that can be built from the depths of despair.

A few of the album's other highlights include "Twilight," a song stripped to the basics of acoustic guitar, lead and background vocals until the bridge when a repetitive keyboard line fills out the sound. "Pretty (Ugly Before)" makes use of a full band and beautifully layered vocals to provide a Smiths-like counterpoint to the lyric's gloominess. But perhaps the disc's most poignant moment is "Fond Farewell," which includes the lines, "I see that you're leaving me, and taking up with the enemy/The cold comfort of the in between, a little less than a human being/a little less than a happy high, a little less than a suicide ... This is not my life, it's just a fond farewell to a friend."

These dynamic songs may not have been enough to save Elliott Smith but they do serve as a fitting monument to his exceptional musical talent.

- Rambles
written by Gregg Thurlbeck
published 23 April 2005

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