(originally printed in Plan B Magazine)
From A Basement On The Hill
It’s shocking how angry beauty can make you feel. Dug out Elliott Smith and Roman Candle t’other day: first time in a long time, left me messed up and twisted again. It was perhaps the first time I’ve really absorbed Elliott’s death. Tears (which prove nothing except perhaps my sentimentality) did come, as did furywith the fucker for leaving so soon. The songs on those two records detail a boy becoming a man; the dual pulls of living, the endless journey within and without. These songs suggested a way of living with love and loss that Smith could perhaps negotiate. In contrast, From A Basement On The Hill is one long hymn to disappearance. And the fact that Smith finally made real what this album suggests is a heartbreaking paradox: that this is his most successful work of art and that it had to be his last.
You feel that Smith was finally able to vanish into his music, and hit that divine point where words and meaning are half obscured by the sheer arresting push’n’pull of his band and their noise. So, the ostensibly barnstorming opener ‘Coast To Coast’ still emerges from a drone chamber and fades into radio static. These are all pop songs under stress, under threat, driven out to you by pressure and by chance. It’s not just the lyrics on ‘Let’s Get Lost’ that make plain Smith’s urge to evaporate – the music itself contains a heavenly trajectory, a desire to snip the gravitational umbilicus and join the dark matter of the cosmos.
Always such a pretty racket, always with the balance and Brownian ethereality of a true angel, Smith has made his music more chaotic, more elegiac and more implosive. Yet he has actually sharpened his songwriting beyond the confines of conciseness or indulgence. ‘Pretty (Ugly Before)’ and ‘Don’t Go Down’ have their own pace and pulse, bringing to life their own reality and rules. When Smith rocks now, there’s no vague distaste in his vocal. He throws himself into the fuzz of ‘Strung Out Again’ and the amazing triple-track delay fest of ‘Shooting Star’, flailing against the electricity. His ability to change his vocal persona (from T Rex to Bowie to Arthur Lee back to Mr Smith) always makes it seem like each melodic twist is spontaneously brought into being. Throughout, Smith doesn’t sing ‘over’ tracks. Instead, the songs sing him, the band swinging under his breath. Whenever From A Basement… slips into silence, your mind races up ladders, which, together with his emotive control, are testament to a man surely only just exploring how good and godlike he could be. And herein lies the anger.
‘A Fond Farewell’ presses you up close, a dear friend giving you a last ambiguous shred of contact. Then you scroll down the sleeve and see: “Copyright 2004, The Estate Of Elliott Smith” and your guts lurch. Bastard. What makes you spit feathers isn’t just the clear signs that Smith had further to go; what makes his loss so infuriating is that songs as beautiful as ‘Twilight’ or ‘A Passing Feeling’ seem so indestructible, even as you know their creator has fallen into a silent unknowable eternity. This record is as addictive as seeing a medium after a bereavement – one that only really reveals its full impact as From A Basement On The Hill latches onto your soul. Painkiller? And pain giver. Oh Elliott, you’ve got me all messed up and twisted again.