By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
Such adroitly idiosyncratic orchestration (and a lot of appropriately inscrutable engineering effects) anoints the entire disc with a specialness pretty much unheard of in the general pop realm. These songs are genuinely melodic (by that I mean melodically unclichÃ©d), and so shrewdly arranged with a deliberately limited palette that their odd dimensions never suffer from incoherence or veer from very direct impact. Occasionally, as with “Pretty (Ugly Before),” whose beguiling, hovering suspended chords become something much more straightforward, you fear he’ll become Tom Petty, but then you remember something Dad once said: These guys aren’t roots-rockers, not mere new folkies. What Smith was was the reincarnation of John Lennon, musically if not spiritually . . . and I do wish Lennon’s late-period work was as good as Smith’s.
The Beatles fix seems unavoidable in “Don’t Go Down,” texturally Plastic Ono Band/White Album Lennon all over, a dermabrasively romantic overdrive guitar sound and intermittent implied transition chords. (“Baby stay,” he says. Need we be reminded that there’s beauty in huge wads of fuzz. Smith, instead of dying, could’ve made an itchy sweater out of the collected lint of his gray/blue washed-up life.) “Little One” is, let’s face it, McCartney’s “Michelle” inverted, but Smith, via some initially unfathomable chord changes that keep you guessing where it’s going and what its intentions are, demonstrates a very high form of songwriting/composition, as if its vagaries of direction are the immediate output of a modem from his head. On “A Fond Farewell” to himself (“I couldn’t get things right . . . This is not my life, it’s just a fond farewell to a friend”), the geeks’ll say the slide-guitar soloing is ever so too George Harrison, but anyone but a total churl would have to agree that it fits the song as if born to play the part. “King’s Crossing,” too, eerily echoes “Blue Jay Way” in the sustain guitar intro, as it would in any of us partaking of the collective psyche.
Typically, and appropriately, “King’s Crossing”’s heart-tugging piano patches are run roughshod over when singer Smith chimes in from a far harder place, as if to repeatedly temper any perceived bathos. Could be significant, as we’re reminded again and again that he apparently wanted to keep this music as non-traditionally sentimental as possible. Yet simultaneously he’ll seek to soften the hardness; showing distinctly musical instincts (his or his producers’), the additional big, messy sound painted on “King’s Crossing” with churchy organs, string synths and harmony vocals bespeaks an ironic “ain’t life great” even as it urges any listener to not give up grasping at magic.
This is where the greatness lies: I think that Elliott Smith just got to the point when he could really hear something. That’s a very fragile and evanescent state, if you’re not a craftsman, which he wasn’t. He was an artist, and that’s why for him almost nothing was ever good enough. The leathery beauty of Smith’s melody is the most beautiful kind of all. Not just Smith but these sympathetic producers/engineers really went for it, and you can hear it plain as day. I only know what’s been reported, that Elliott wanted this to be a double-disc set, Ã la the White Album, warts and all. I do think that whoever made the final choices and sequencing did a good job. I think it’s possible that cuts were necessary to strengthen the impact of the work as a whole, made by someone with better judgment than the artist himself in this case.
This is rock music, undoubtedly, and it bashes its way into your heart the way rock likes to do. But it’s not just your heart it wants. And it’s not like a fuck you, and neither is it a desperate plea to be understood. And as the last song, “A Distorted Reality Is Now a Necessity To Be Free,” makes clear, thank you and good night, From a Basement on the Hill ends just in time, having said everything it needed to. No, he would never have topped it, ever again. Yes, I do think the drugs and liquor helped him get to that rarefied air he needed in order to hear these songs, and to carry them through — to execute them. Because they’re so beautiful, not in a heartbreaking way, but in a destiny way, a gauntlet-throwing way. And in a look man, how’s your petty life? kind of way. Like this: I can see my death, and it’s glowing gold, so close, so far away.
ELLIOTT SMITH| From a Basement on the Hill | (Anti-)