Elliott Smith From A Basement On The Hill

[Anti-; 2004]

Styles:  singer-songwriter
Others: Sleepy Jackson, Spiritualized, Nick Drake, Beck, John Lennon

There are many instances of artists receiving a justified amount of well-earned fame posthumously. Otis Redding, star of the soul label Stax Records, had his biggest hit "Dock Of The Bay" released six weeks after his fatal plane crash. "Love Will Tear Us Apart" becomes the signature Joy Division tune and their only charting hit, one month after lead singer Ian Curtis' suicide. Lest we forget the virtual anonymity of practically every painter and visual artist in recorded history during their lifetimes. And so it was painfully with Elliott that he didn't receive nearly enough acclaim by the world, or even credit from me, while he was still here to acknowledge it.

Although I'd seen Good Will Hunting and heard his Academy Award-nominated "Miss Misery" without much thought, I didn't truly find out about Smith until I read a review of Figure 8, in Maxim of all places. While the review made obvious the sombre tones of the album, what probably made me download it was the cover, as I was big into psychedelic rock at the time and the cover is somewhat groovy. Though I would discover psychedelia is only a really small part of the Smith package, I liked it enough to keep that crappy burned disc kicking around my collection for years. I dusted it off from time to time to throw in as background around the house. Then October 21st, 2003 rolled around. I read about it in an internet café as soon as word got out. As a music nut, you read a lot of obituaries -- Rolling Stone and many other mags even have monthly sections. But I couldn't believe how much Elliott's death affected me. I threw Figure 8 on the moment I got home, and for the first time, I really listened to him. So much pain, anguish, yearning, melancholy, regret, love, the entire gamut of passionate human emotions I'd managed to miss before suddenly seemed so obvious; I finally looked past the pop sensibilities of his record to the power of his voice. I quickly acquired almost his entire back catalogue and they've been in heavy rotation ever since. It's a bastard of a catch-22 for me. I love his music so much now it kills me he's not still out there for me to one day thank or at least see live; but if he hadn't passed away, I may have never really listened and my life would now be much thinner. Life loves to fuck with you sometimes, I guess.

Despite the fact that Elliott Smith didn't have final say in the tracklisting, From A Basement On A Hill is not merely some slapped together, scrapped tracks album. This was something Smith had been working on for over two years that he had almost finished. As such, it's not quite as thoroughly polished as Figure 8, but he was stepping back from that album's grandiosity anyway (though, for the record, the production is still much more refined than the understated beauty of Either/Or). In any case, it's Elliott Smith, and that's practically enough to pass legislation forcing everyone to buy multiple copies. His voice had that x-factor quality that graces so few of us and often for only a short time. Like Layne Staley, Beth Gibbons, and Kurt Cobain, you could just about taste the feelings that poured from every word. This album is no different. If you're not moved in some way, you don't move. While Figure 8 dabbled in Spiritualized-style neo-psychedelia, Basement is more traditionally psyche-o and arguably the most Beatles-like album Smith made. The backwards guitar on "Little One," the vocal filter and chorus on "A Distorted Reality Is Now A Necessity To Be Free," and the delivery of "Let's Get Lost" all scream post-Help! Lennon. Yet the synth work on "King's Crossing" recalls The Cars while "Don't Go Down" remembers early Weezer, so it's unfair to throw his sound down to only a couple influences. The whole album seemed eerily familiar the first time I heard it, and now it's as if I grew up with it. Regardless, "A Fond Farewell" has to be one of the finest singer-songwriter moments in history, while "Pretty (Ugly Before)" will stand as one of the key Smith moments containing elements of practically every style he ever appropriated. There are nothing but reasons to buy this album.

Do I think he's a genius because he may have killed himself? No, he was just an amazingly talented artist who didn't get dealt the hand he deserved. I'm just a fool who didn't see it in time, and his death is a glaring declaration of my ignorance. But I'm trying, I'm really trying to wake up.

1. Coast To Coast
2. Let's Get Lost
3. Pretty (Ugly Before)
4. Don't Go Down
5. Strung Out Again
6. A Fond Farewell
7. King's Crossing
8. Ostrich & Chirping
9. Twilight
10. A Passing Feeling
11. Last Hour
12. Shooting Star
13. Memory Lane
14. Little One
15. A Distorted Reality Is Now A Necessity To Be Free

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