Hes Not Trying To Break Your Heart
The late Elliott Smiths 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 Smiths death have to follow his magnum opus (for it now seems as if predestined)? The answer, I think, is that we werent meant to know why. In fact, that we arent meant to know about Smiths 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, Smiths last obfuscation-confessions will only further provoke your frustration, your enticement and, of course, your fascination.
But heres 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 youll 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 junkies 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 thats regardless of overt displays of affection, loyalty and truth telling.
A junkies 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 junkies 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 artists face and body, one and all feature a kind of weirdly upbeat forward motion. Its 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 Smiths own explicit lyrical confirmations) make more obvious a ubiquitous calm; one senses a palpable joy (better, something approximating joy) in Smiths 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.
Its 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 sets 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: Its Aaaahhh aaahhhh ahhh aaahhhh haaaa whooo whooo and pianos tinkling too, but It just wasnt that much fun, he says, and Ill never be good enough for you and, cut to the chase, Just leave it alone/just forget it/its really easy/Ill just forget it too. This is some really uplifting garbage, like hes hauling the trash upstairs to empty it out the window. Lets 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.
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 unclichéd), 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 hell become Tom Petty, but then you remember something Dad once said: These guys arent roots-rockers, not mere new folkies. What Smith was was the reincarnation of John Lennon, musically if not spiritually . . . and I do wish Lennons late-period work was as good as Smiths.
The Beatles fix seems unavoidable in Dont 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 theres beauty in huge wads of fuzz. Smith, instead of dying, couldve made an itchy sweater out of the collected lint of his gray/blue washed-up life.) Little One is, lets face it, McCartneys Michelle inverted, but Smith, via some initially unfathomable chord changes that keep you guessing where its 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 couldnt get things right . . . This is not my life, its just a fond farewell to a friend), the geeksll 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. Kings 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, Kings Crossings 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 were reminded again and again that he apparently wanted to keep this music as non-traditionally sentimental as possible. Yet simultaneously hell seek to soften the hardness; showing distinctly musical instincts (his or his producers), the additional big, messy sound painted on Kings Crossing with churchy organs, string synths and harmony vocals bespeaks an ironic aint 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. Thats a very fragile and evanescent state, if youre not a craftsman, which he wasnt. He was an artist, and thats why for him almost nothing was ever good enough. The leathery beauty of Smiths 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 whats been reported, that Elliott wanted this to be a double-disc set, à la the White Album, warts and all. I do think that whoever made the final choices and sequencing did a good job. I think its 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 its not just your heart it wants. And its 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 theyre so beautiful, not in a heartbreaking way, but in a destiny way, a gauntlet-throwing way. And in a look man, hows your petty life? kind of way. Like this: I can see my death, and its glowing gold, so close, so far away.
ELLIOTT SMITH | From a Basement on the Hill | (Anti-)
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.