Monday, April 2, 2018

I'd Love to Turn You On #202 - Elliott Smith - From a Basement on the Hill

I was very much a latecomer to Elliott Smith’s music. I’d been aware of his rise in popularity in the late 1990s and had a lot of friends who loved his music but for whatever reason it didn’t appeal to me then. Working at an independent record store in fall of 2004 during the release of Smith’s final and posthumous album, From a Basement on the Hill, proved to be a surreal and transformative time for me. The album came out almost exactly a year after Smith’s tragic and mysterious death and in some ways I felt like an usher at a funeral; I’d guide customers to Smith’s last album and listen as they discussed their sense of loss and connection to his music. A few customers even confessed that during the era of rampant downloading they felt compelled to come into their local record store and buy a physical copy of the album. That experience introduced me to From a Basement on the Hill, a heavy, messy, and ultimately beautiful document of Smith’s artistry that has survived as one of the best rock albums of the last twenty years.

A few weeks ago in preparation for writing this post, I sat down and listened to From a Basement on the Hill from start to finish and came away not only impressed once more with the strength of all of the songs on the album, but also excited to have the chance to celebrate this remarkable work. Unfortunately a lingering, limiting perception of Elliott Smith’s music that has become increasingly common is that it is sad and only sad. The album’s opener, “Coast to Coast,” subverts this view by slowly building from an abstract introduction of soaring, overlapping notes into an arresting, ramshackle tempo before Smith launches into a defiant assertion of independence. At the end of the song, Smith’s righteous willfulness slowly gives way to a morass of dueling voices that could belong to poets, preachers, or talk radio hosts. This device allows Smith an opportunity to reflect humorously on his music getting lost in the commentary of others as well as to establish the album’s sound-collage aesthetic that binds and unites these fifteen songs. A few songs later “Don’t Go Down” stutters through a false start and then coalesces into a spiraling guitar riff before Smith kicks off a narrative of a doomed relationship with a brazen, devastating opening couplet: “I met a girl, snowball in hell. She was hard and as cracked as the Liberty Bell.” Later on, “King’s Crossing” ambles through over a minute of interwoven conversation, ambient instrumentation, and dissonance before culminating into a piano figure and layers of wordless harmony. This subdued preamble soon gives way to playful, yet nightmarish imagery reminiscent of Charles Bukowski’s writing as Smith’s ragged, distorted guitar amplifies the proceedings into one of the album’s most powerful moments. Although I’ve highlighted a few of the album’s heavier and more deconstructed songs, From a Basement on the Hill finds its enduring balance with a number of Smith’s gentler and more conventional songs including “Let’s Get Lost,” “A Fond Farewell,” “A Passing Feeling,” and “Memory Lane.”

Posthumous albums will always be a dodgy proposition in part because we as listeners will never know if the artist would have wanted us to hear this music. The already tricky equation of posthumously released music became even more suspect in 1990s and early 2000s after a trend of frequent releases by recently deceased artists that often seemed more commercially calculated than artistically substantial. Ultimately once these works have been released, it’s up to the listener to judge the music’s merit, but untimely death can cast a shadow of confusion and doubt over the album’s release. At the time of Elliott Smith’s death, From a Basement on the Hill was a work in progress, but it wasn’t finished. It is very possible that this may not be the album Elliott Smith would have released had he lived, but fourteen years later it’s hard for me to imagine life without this album.

-         John Parsell

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