When Elliott Smith died on October 21, 2003, he left behind dozens of songs in various stages of completion across tape reels and hard drives. With this in mind, it’s something of a miracle that From A Basement On The Hill, released posthumously, on October 18, 2004 – almost a year to the day after Smith’s death – ever saw the light of day. Even more amazing is that it’s as cohesive a listen as it is.
A troubled gestation
During the album’s troubled gestation, Smith spoke of From A Basement On The Hill as his “White Album” – a sprawling, experimental double-album akin to The Beatles’ self-titled masterpiece. For a long time, however, it was his white whale. Amid a personal and professional falling out with Rob Schnapf, who had co-produced Smith’s work since Either/Or, and with Schnapf’s wife, Margaret Mittleman, his manager since 1994, Smith scrapped the initial recordings for what was his then-untitled sixth album.
He then went into the studio with Jon Brion, only for Brion to quit during the sessions. Smith then reached out to David McConnell, a producer and visual artist associated with the band Goldenboy, and with whom he’d recently toured. The McConnell-led sessions went well for a while, but, after Smith’s death, Smith’s family hired Schnapf and Joanna Bolme, a longtime friend (and one-time girlfriend) of Smith’s, to finish the album. Nothing was added to the songs that wasn’t already there.
Different than anything he’d previously laid to tape
No matter who put the pieces together, listeners would have immediately noticed how different From A Basement On The Hill was from anything that Smith had previously laid to tape. “Coast To Coast” extends the streak of perfect Elliott Smith opening tracks; like “Speed Trials” (Either/Or) and “Sweet Adeline” (XO) before it, the song immediately shows the listener what new sounds they can expect to hear Smith playing with.
After a ghostly prelude, “Coast To Coast” erupts into a tempest of thorny guitars and thunderous drums. To produce the song’s complex drum tracks, Smith enlisted two drummers to play at the same time, directing them as if he were conducting an orchestra. He pulled a similar trick on the six-minute “Shooting Star,” which has three drum tracks at once. The song, like much of the album it’s on, sounds massive, but also hollow and misshapen, like a shout echoing through a tunnel.
Sugar for the bitter lyrical pills
Smith never made an album that didn’t sound bigger than the one before it, but Figure 8 was the first of his works that felt cluttered, piling distorted guitars high atop saloon pianos. From A Basement On The Hill, in comparison, strips away its predecessor’s flashier instrumentation and leaves what remains to ring out into empty space. A song like “Pretty (Ugly Before)” is given just enough to feel finished without feeling overdone, its softly strummed electric guitar shining through like the first rays of sunlight in the morning.
As with many of the best Elliott Smith’s songs, the music serves as sugar for the bitter lyrical pills; the opening lines “Sunshine/Been keeping me up for days” don’t refer to a prolonged period of happiness, but a drug-induced mania. (Smith was known to go days at a time without sleeping.) This and other such moments, like “Memory Lane,” “Twilight” and “Strung Out Again,” find Smith working in familiar territory, and are among From A Basement On The Hill’s finest.
At the same time, Smith was interested in subverting the more pop-friendly sounds he had explored on XO and Figure 8. Where Smith had previously hidden heart-wrenching tales of sadness inside bright, catchy melodies, now he wanted to write songs where the music sounded as dark as the lyrics – which are some of the darkest he ever penned.
One of From A Basement On The Hill’s more stomach-churning tracks is “A Distorted Reality Is Now A Necessity To Be Free.” The song’s vicious distorted guitar is only matched by the lyrics, which peak with Smith’s declaration that “My country don’t give a f__k.” It’s the only song of Smith’s that could be called political.
Never meant to be a farewell
And then there’s “King’s Crossing,” one of the very best songs in Smith’s catalog. Even without the lyrics, the music is profoundly unsettling, its swirling, psychedelic arrangement rising and falling like a tide of black water. But when you hear Smith sing, “I can’t prepare for death any more than I already have,” or, “Give me one good reason not to do it,” you can just barely hear his girlfriend, Jennifer Chiba, sing “Because we love you” in response. It sounds like an unbearable foreshadowing of what would come.
But that’s not how these were meant to be heard. These songs were recorded when Smith was very much alive and working to overcome years of addiction and depression. It’s in the chorus of “A Fond Farewell,” when he sings, “This is not my life/It’s just a fond farewell to a friend,” that Smith seems to be singing to himself, giving himself permission to let go of a past self and become someone healthier and happier.
From A Basement On The Hill is an imperfect, sometimes difficult-to-listen-to final bow from a beloved artist. Even those who helped see the album to its completion have confessed that it is not the record that Smith would have released. But that’s only because it was never meant to be a farewell. It was meant to be a new beginning.