Shortcut: Elliott Smith

By Brad Heffern

Just last month, Seattle-based Suicide Squeeze records released what would become the last release in Elliott Smith’s lifetime. A teaser for the upcoming From a Basement on the Hill (which will most likely see release in 2004 on a yet-to-be-decided indie label), the limited-edition record features “Pretty (Ugly Before)” on the a-side and “A Distorted Reality is Now a Necessity to be Free” on the b-side. As it was a limited pressing of 5,000, copies of this record have been going for as much as $50 on eBay since his death last week.

Side A: It would be easy to dig through Elliott Smith’s final work looking for some hint of what was, tragically, to come. However, this isn’t Nirvana unplugged—”Pretty (Ugly Before)” is decidedly the more upbeat side of Smith. There just isn’t anything to read into. The death’s doorstep whisper of “Needle In the Hay” is all but gone, replaced by a pleasant vocal jounce and lines like, “I feel pretty, pretty enough for you/I felt so ugly before, I didn’t know what to do.” Musically, the a-side is very similar to everything Smith has done for Dreamworks. All the Nick Drake, pre-Pink Moon-style orchestral flourishes are still in place, as well as Smith’s famous jarring chord changes.

There is, however, some obvious Beatles influence, not present in anything Smith had done before. Interspersed backwards-guitar parts run throughout the track, and the way he says “sunshine” is a dead-ringer for John Lennon. As he did all through his career, “Pretty (Ugly Before)” shows Smith taking small evolutionary steps. If you want revolutionary, see side b.

Side B: For a long time now, we’ve been hearing that From a Basement on the Hill is going to be the record that reconciles Elliott Smith’s catalog. That is to say, it will marry the sparse confessional-songwriting style of his earlier work to the more lush sound of his major label recordings. “A Distorted Reality is Now a Necessity to be Free” may be the song to prove this. Furthermore, it’s arguably one of his best songs since his “Either/Or” period—it’s rather surprising that its been regulated to obscure b-side status. Opening with Smith singing over a minimal organ line, the song slowly adds layers of percussion and Beatles-esque guitar lines before closing with a bluesy solo that was probably written by Lennon himself. Lyrically, it’s more reminiscent of Smith’s earlier work, namely “Christian Brother.” The song opens with him singing, “I’m floating in a black balloon/I must make it through this afternoon.” Quite frankly, Elliott, I wish you could’ve made it a little longer.

—Brad Heffern and Mehan Jayasuriya