Fond farewell from basement of a forlorn favorite

By Seth Mayer

The first Elliott Smith album I bought was a disappointment. Its name was Figure 8, and it didn’t sound like the Elliott Smith I’d first heard while seeing the movie The Royal Tenenbaums. The spare, driving, almost folky sound of “Needle in the Hay” that made Richie Tenenbaum’s suicide attempt all the more devastating had been replaced by a more melodic, poppy style. My initial reaction was annoyance; then I went out, bought his earlier, more lo-fi release Either/Or, declared myself an Elliott Smith fan, and never looked back at Figure 8’s Beach Boys and Beatles-influenced pop.

Around a year ago, the world learned that Elliott Smith had been found dead from a knife wound in his chest. He had been working on a follow-up to Figure 8 that would eventually be given the name from a basement on the hill. Its production would be finished by veteran producer Rob Shnapf (who worked with Smith previously) and Smith’s friend and ex-girlfriend Joanna Bohlme. Now, almost a year later, with from a basement on the hill finally being released, the circumstances surrounding Smith’s death are still mysterious (coroners were unable to decide on whether it was a murder or suicide). Smith’s personal life was tumultuous; it was never clear whether the substance abuse and depression that perpetually plagued him had been getting better or worse. The temptation to look to his last album for some kind of explanation is strong, especially for many people who found comfort in the melancholy music that Smith made over the course of his short, troubled life.

From a basement on the hill is, quite simply, another Elliott Smith album. In some ways, it is the album most representative of his distinct style and aesthetic. All the influences that are associated with Smith seem to pop up on this album, from the Jeff Buckley-esque intro of “Coast to Coast” to the Beatles-influenced melodies of “Don’t Go Down” and the Beach Boys-style California pop that permeates the entire CD.

The five albums that were released previously never completely embodied the things that were written about Elliott Smith’s music. Roman Candle and his self-titled album were much more folk than pop. Either/Or had the best songwriting, but weaker production. XO had better production, but uneven songwriting. Then came Figure 8, which had production that was almost too good; the alt-folk sound associated with Smith’s earlier work was gone. As a whole, no album was exactly the way Elliott Smith was supposed to sound, according to the music press. Individual songs, like “Say Yes” on Either/Or and “Baby Britain” on XO, had all the things with which Elliott Smith songs were credited: a melodic pop feel, insightful, honest lyrics, and a wispy voice that was instantly identifiable. His best songs (and there were a number of them) lived up to the hype that was often afforded him (with the invocation of names like Dylan and Lennon), but too many songs on even his best albums never reached the heights of his best work.

The triumph of his final album is that it is able to blend many of the best parts of his work up until his death. Some songs on his last release are like the quiet, somber laments of early Smith, while others have the distorted electric guitar and fiercely catchy melodies of his later, more produced work. The songs, as a whole, on this album feel much more solid than on any other release. There are few missteps on the album; from a basement on the hill is likely Elliott Smith’s most coherent work. There are no songs that immediately jump out as being the best ones on the album. Even so, this is not because of any weakness in the album but because they all seem to have equal strength, despite the constant stylistic changes from track to track. The production, the songwriting, and the music have an evenness that seems to be lacking in other albums. Things seem to finally click here—not just for some of the songs, but for all of them.

The first time I heard most of the songs on from a basement on the hill was on live recordings made long before the album’s release. In the recordings, Elliott seems fragile, confused (or maybe just inebriated), and almost scared of the audience. When he plays the songs from his final album on an acoustic guitar, they sound hushed and tossed off.

In the studio recordings, there is an assurance and strength that keeps the songs stuck in your head for days. Here is the control that Smith (who went in and out of rehab and struggled with psychological problems) wasn’t able to grasp in real life. Yet the urge to connect from a basement on the hill to this musician’s tragic life and death is a mistaken impulse. As a musician, he was in control of his craft and able to make tender, distinct songs in a way few others ever could. As a person, he was flawed and lost.

While this album doesn’t explain what happened to the man who made it, it does embody who he wanted to be as a musician more than any of his other works. I wish that instead of Figure 8, from a basement on the hill had been the album I had bought when I was looking for Elliott Smith in the record store. Everything that is great about Elliott Smith’s music is here. From a basement on the hill is a farewell to the fans who swore by him, as well as an introduction for newcomers to a musical legacy left in the wake of a life gone sadly awry.