“Let this dignified CD not be the start of a multi-label Elliott Smith refabrication issuing forth several unsatisfactory “best-of” collections bittersweetened with rarities and “never-before-heard” vault finds and overdubbed demos. Fans of Tupac, Nick Drake, Johnny Cash, the Beatles and Jeff Buckley may maintain a philosophy of the-more-the-merrier regarding posthumous releases, but I’m always reminded by them of Steven Patrick Morrissey’s ominous verses from the Smiths’ “Paint A Vulgar Picture”:
At the record company meeting
On their hands a dead star
And oh, the plans they weave
And oh, the sickening greed
Re-issue, re-package, re-package
Re-evaluate the songs
Double-pack with a photograph
Extra track (and a tacky badge)
Let this dignified CD not be considered incidental music for a dead-songwriter-themed game of Clue, a la certain works by Gram Parsons and Nirvana. (I was working at a record store the day of Kurt Cobain’s death, and my colleagues and I struggled to avoid making a tacky sales display when we endured a rush on his product. A TV news crew came out to interview us and our customers. I felt guilty about almost sniggering when a girl moped in, weeping, lugged the Nirvana discography to the counter, and said, “Everyone from our generation is leaving us. First we lost John Candy, and now this.”)
Yes, most of the lyrics on From A Basement On The Hill imply that their author was not long for this world, but after a while, one realizes that connecting the morbid dots, or rubbernecking at lines such as “I took my own insides out,” is like imagining some deep profundity lies in the coy threats of horror movie villains. (For example: Max Von Sydow in Needful Things as a storekeeper Satan, saying, “I couldn’t fit another soul in here.”) Yes, Smith’s death remains unsolved, and — ooooh — he released work on labels named Suicide Squeeze and Kill Rock Stars. Yes, he died of stab wounds to the heart, and — ooooh — he lost the Best Song Oscar to a fluffpiece called “My Heart Will Go On”. Smith deserves better than such parlor tricks.
Let this dignified CD not be more freighted than it deserves to be. Face it: Smith’s voice is much better multi-tracked with effects on album than it is left to fend for itself in concert, and his verses are often limp with abstractions and cliches. Tunes are what the man did best: He could make a guitar go wonderfully wispy, when his arrangements weren’t showing off his inheritance as one of the Fab Four’s sad scions (listen for the high strums on this album’s “Let’s Get Lost”, which is not a cover of the Jimmy McHugh/Chet Baker gem).
From A Basement On The Hill carefully showcases all of Smith’s modes: On “King’s Crossing” and “Little One”, you get modern psychedelia that sounds like he was the Portland’s rainy-day ranger for Athens’ loopy Elephant 6 collective. Fans of his explosive rock-orchestral work can relish “Coast To Coast”, “Don’t Go Down”, and the Flaming Lips-at-a-Zappa-roadhouse “Shooting Star”. You like the ones that start quiet and then go loud? Allow me to direct you to “Strung Out Again” and “A Passing Feeling”. You want the hipster John Hartford-style fingerpicking? Try “Memory Lane”.
But some of you came here to cry, hoping Smith would channel the soft desperation of his first two albums, and you’ll not be disappointed with the disappointment chronicled in “A Fond Farewell”, or the complicated passion of the somehow-not-cheesy “Twilight”. Absent, again, are the story-songs he used to do, such as the acoustic “Southern Belle” from his self-titled sophomore release, about living in a tiny town “where all you can do is grit your teeth.”
A few flat patches remain, and the drums can get shambolic, but for an album recorded in ten different places, and finished by mourning friends and family, Basement holds together well as a kind of Trojan retrospective or back-looking pioneer expedition. Love songs and protest songs offset the preoccupation with life’s unbearability (even if the loves are toxic and the protests hopeless). If the lyrics make a coherent argument, it is that existence requires two conflicting types of assistance: community and medicine. If the lyrics make a coherent insinuation, it is that love involves combat and threat.
From A Basement On The Hill is a kind of sad triumph, a pop candy shop where the conversation drifts to corpses and hard drugs. Smith calls his career “the method acting that pays my bills,” begging the question: What price authenticity? But the line also reveals the underdog vulnerability than separates his music from that of his peers with similar influences such as, say, Matthew Sweet. (Then again, Sweet lacks Smith’s seductive coo.)
Anyone who clicked through Smith’s autopsy report on the internet will be chilled when he sings, “It’s not what I’m like.” He was no Dylan, but he was singular, monopolizing a vibe (and inadvertently inspiring a herd of sappy nasal imitators). He barely outlived the very Jesus whose popularity his hero John Lennon claimed to have eclipsed.
There is nothing new under this album’s sun, but it’s a fine endpoint for the path that Smith trod from Heatmiser to DreamWorks and beyond. At last, this vigorous talent can’t ache anymore; one thinks of the final lines of “90 North” by the poet Randall Jarrell, whose death also may or may not have been a suicide:
“Pain comes from the darkness
And we call it wisdom. It is pain.”