As part of our 40th anniversary celebrations, beloved former music editor John Payne returns as honorary music editor this week, taking the reins for the print and online music content. Here, he revisits an achingly honest Elliott Smith article from 2004. —Brett Callwood
When Elliott Smith died, it hit a lot of us very hard and very personally. He'd recently released a masterpiece of an album and was seemingly on a creative roll. He'd given his last performance at the L.A. Weekly Music Awards, where he was frail and fragile and, musically at least, chillingly beautiful. Thank you, Elliott Smith. — John Payne
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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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 nontraditionally 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, 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 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.