He’s Not Trying To Break Your Heart 

From a Basement on the Hill shatters Elliott’s myth

Thursday, Oct 14 2004

The late Elliott Smith’s From a Basement on the Hill is a very great album by — why not? — a very great man. A textbook example of creative wholeness and a virtual primer on structural and orchestral ideals in a rock context, it fulfills several terms for greatness: It moves us with so many stratums of emotion particularized and peculiarized; it constantly startles with distinct and fresh views about the very shape a song can be; and, having done both those things, it continues to evolve, paying enormous emotional and psychological dividends the more you give it your time.

Now, to induce the typically religious mood that proclamations of rock Greatness encourage: Why did Smith’s death have to follow his magnum opus (for it now seems as if predestined)? The answer, I think, is that we weren’t meant to know why. In fact, that we aren’t meant to know about Smith’s true motivations, sorrows, joys, etc. — or his real anything — plays like a theme on Basement. So if you are wont to glean more about this funny sad/not-sad little man, Smith’s last obfuscation-confessions will only further provoke your frustration, your enticement and, of course, your fascination.

Also in this issue ALEC HANLEY BEMIS on Elliot Smith’s unhappy dream life; and CHRIS MARTINS on Earlimart’s community values.

But here’s the harsh part: Elliott Smith hid himself quite on purpose, despite your personal connection with him and his troubled life and troubling music — in spite of any and all your deep love. Smith kept himself hidden because — harsher still, but you’ll thank me in the end — you have to understand that he was a JUNKIE. Oh, he may have sworn off heroin toward the end, eaten healthy food and applied himself to his work, but by the end he had required a literal suitcase full of medications and scotch to even himself out to the point where he could function as a human on the most basic levels. Nevertheless, he still would have carried with him to any ultimate end the banalities of a junkie’s mind; he would have done what all junkies do, which is to focus so ferociously on themselves that anyone in close proximity has to die at least a little bit too, and that’s regardless of overt displays of affection, loyalty and truth telling.

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A junkie’s animal devotion to no one other than himself often produces a kind of charisma, for a particular kind of needy audience of which there is currently still no shortage and most likely never will be. For deep beneath the junkie’s hide reigns a sober repose toward which the insatiate crowd is drawn . . . like moths to a flame.


Junkies, alcoholics and narcissists, all eventually must face the immutable law of diminishing returns, an inevitability that will determine the specific period in their lives when the drugs or booze or the physical beauty/charisma are usable and useful, and what precisely must be accomplished during this relatively brief interval. Elliott Smith knew this far prior to his death, obviously, and deliberately framed his From a Basement on the Hill as the chronicle of his death foretold. Yet perhaps most interesting about this particular book of doom is its distinct lack of long, dreadful minutes of agonized introspection or indeed anything remotely resembling a view that death is anything other than one of the more beautiful parts of life. These songs, while all mottled with scars and scribbles, much like the artist’s face and body, one and all feature a kind of weirdly upbeat forward motion. It’s a forward motion toward death, yes, but if the strange whims of the arrangements and structures of these works strike you as evidence of a kind of willful self-destruction, several spins (and Smith’s own explicit lyrical confirmations) make more obvious a ubiquitous calm; one senses a palpable joy (better, something approximating joy) in Smith’s knowing his destiny. The album is characterized by the sound of his relief that the worst and hardest part — staying alive, proving his points, perhaps — is over.

It’s the sound of finally released pure expression, a purely musical point Smith proclaims over and again throughout this sonically far-reaching album. The wretched, wrenching chaos of warped string damage launches the opening “Coast to Coast” into the set’s characteristically fantastic chord changes (better chords in unusual sequences are a truly progressive rock move that Smith understood like almost nobody else in pop), then bumps atop a bridge/chorus leaping jaggedly up the steps: It’s “Aaaahhh aaahhhh ahhh aaahhhh haaaa whooo whooo” and pianos tinkling too, but “It just wasn’t that much fun,” he says, and “I’ll never be good enough for you” and, cut to the chase, “Just leave it alone/just forget it/it’s really easy/I’ll just forget it too.” This is some really uplifting garbage, like he’s hauling the trash upstairs to empty it out the window. “Let’s Get Lost” is an acoustic-guitar number, not just with solo warbling, but accompanied by harmonizing womanly warble at tail ends of key lines; these brief shades of harmony are daubed in like stippling, only to hint at the ways a single note placed just here can utterly mangle what we thought we were feeling.

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