From a Basement on the Hill
I looked back at a journal entry I did when Elliot Smith's self-appointed demise was announced, and saw I stated I was dissappointed that yet another young talent that seemed to have it all laid before them had bitten the dust. My opinion is not as not as strong in the matter now, but still I just don't have a lot of pity for rock-n-roll suicides, or suicides in general. I mean, if you think life is out of control, then your ending it (usually being able to terminate something is a hallmark of absolute control in every other facet of life) blew that theory. But anyway, he did it and that's that. Demons to demons, dust to dust, and if there is a Heaven, I hope he's in it. I went through his extant albums a friend had loaned me, and I was somewhat underwhelmed by this critical darling. He always seemd just about there to me, but not quite there, so I put him out of my mind until a couple months ago, when someone sent me a live MP3 of him doing Oasis' "Supersonic" and I was dumbstruck by how good it was. It was fragile, earnest, a cry for help. I just kept thinking, why doesn't he just do that, put his songs out without the Paul McCartney-esque vaudeville that clouded it and just let his pain speak.
Fast forward a couple months, and a publicity accidentally agent drops a year-old cd in a mailer to an uncannily handsome and charming music critc who was begging them for something else entirely, and bam! Said critic gets his wish. From a Basement On a Hill, an album Smith started and was later, with some contraversy, finished by others, is that album I wanted out of him. Warm, spooky, frail, honest, remorseful, simple. The obvious analagous album is its older-sister-suicide-note Nirvana's In Utero, and some of the same things unfortunately make them both great. I say unfortunately, because you can't help look for clues to the ending you already know about, and you find them left lying around everywhere.
A prime examlple: The rollicking opener "Coast to Coast" intones
Is there anything I could do
That someone doesn't do for you
That I've already done for you
which dissolves into a collage of angry radio pundits during which he matter-of-fact-ly says "That's why." You don't need to be a tight-clothed CSI agent to decipher that one. Whether he's asking that of the world, or the world asking him, it doesn't matter. An even more transparent exploration of the theme is one of the best songs on the album "A Fond Farewell" where the s-word even rears its head and the chorus built of "This is not my life...Its not what I'm like...I couldn't get things right/Its just a fond farewell to a friend."
Now I'm not so naive to miss the fact that one can write about suicide and not mean it. My beloved Drive By Truckers would barely have enough material for an EP if that was the case. But you'd have a hard time selling me that this is not what's going on here. The "give me a reason not to do it - so do it" on "Kings Crossing." etc etc
OK, I'm going to let it go now. This album is fantastic, no matter what/who its about. The songs rock and slink and soar and explode with the best use of Elliot Smith's penchant for heavy orchestration in his later albums and his lonely hummingbird of a voice. There are cheery hallucinatory moments like "Ostrich and Chirping" butted up against postiviely beautiful songs like "Twilight" whose much-repeated line "I'm already somebody's baby" has been on repeat on my brain since I first heard it. Ther are aching lullabyes like "The Last Hour" and Magical Mystery Tours like "Shooting Star" and Abbey Road death-strolls like "A Distorted Reality is a Necessity To Be Free." Song to song, its a great album. I'll admit I'm no advanced Elliot Smith scholar, but I think its his best album, so unless he's got a Tupac-like cache of shelved material up in his pyramid, this is a remarkable acheivement to end his career on, no matter what retirement option he went for.
Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com