The most horrific circumstance surrounding Elliott Smith’s (alleged) suicide, even more haunting than the songwriter’s decision to plunge a steak knife through his heart, is how unsurprising that decision was. Few other artists, living or dead, have charted such a vividly bleak existence with their music. Paradoxically, what was possibly Smith’s greatest asset — his honesty — has made his suicide a fitting end to a narrative we had come to know well, one filled with shattered romance, drug addictions and acute isolation. If we could be as honest with ourselves as Smith has been with us, we’d see just how clearly this was coming — and how little we could have done about it.
It is tempting, therefore, released as it was almost a year after that fateful day, to read From a Basement on the Hill as a summation of Smith’s lyrical and musical vision, as his final send-off to a world he had debated leaving for a long while. Reality rarely provides us such satisfaction, and knowing that Smith originally envisioned the album as a thirty-some-track epic and that long-time producer Rob Schnapf and former girlfriend Joanna Bolme finished the final mixing and mastering after the singer’s passing, From a Basement frustratingly eludes these easing readings.
What we do get are fifteen songs that span the gamut of Smith’s output over the last decade, from the symphonic pop of 2000’s Figure 8 to the lo-fi intimacy of his earliest work. The latter makes for some of the album’s best tunes. “The Last Hour” has Smith sounding as fragile as a spider web, and just as beautiful, his tremulous vocals yearning for a place “where no one else gonna give me grief.” And “Memory Lane” parries bright, fluttering finger-picking with friends that “kick you in the head and send you back to bed” — surely some of the most spiteful words in a catalogue full of fuck-offs.
Less successful are the more orchestrated numbers. Smith’s previous two records — Figure 8 and 1998’s XO — distilled a larger Dreamworks production budget into taut little pop symphonies, but here, “Coast to Coast” and “Shooting Star” sound directionless and weighty. Schizophrenic guitars sputter and stop and climaxes come too early or too late. Smith’s envelope-pushing triumphs only with “King’s Crossing.” Bursting with tin-pan-alley piano and surging percussion, Smith paints a dynamic portrait of a man with little choice left than Jack Daniels or Budweiser.
The record’s lasting impression, though, isn’t its musical inconsistencies, but its refusal to resolve the conflicts that have plagued its author. Both superficially (check the album titles Either/Or, XO, and Figure 8), and in their content, Smith’s records have portrayed a man paralyzed by his conflicting desires for companionship and seclusion. These indecisions remain on From a Basement. “Don’t Go Down” dares to believe in love’s promises, but “Twilight” reveals Smith’s deep-seated doubts about his ability to satisfy anybody beyond himself.
In the end, Smith found no comfort in that “in-between” he always bemoaned, and we are left only with disappointment — disappointment in an album with a little less of the brilliance we’ve known and a little more of the psychic confusion that assured its author’s demise and stubbornly refused our attempts at fruitful analysis. From the Basement is a painful reminder of a record that could’ve been and a life that shouldn’t have ended.