Elliott Smith - ‘From A Basement On The Hill’ (Domino)
05 Oct 2004
his tragic, but partly uplifting swansong, and a truly fitting epitaph. elliott smith, your legend burns; release - '04.
Final albums are often abysmal; bands petering out into nothingness, or a solo artist's cash-in retirement job. The last LP from Elliot Smith was always going to be exceptional. A one-off. The last testament from a man who had made up his mind.
A goodbye to the world; a celebration of life and acceptance of death as the only answer, capturing the tears of a broken man on strips of magnetic tape. Shortly after the completion of this album, Eliot Smith stabbed himself; taking his own life.
Musically, it sounds like a 'Best of'; the essence of his varying periods placed coherently side by side; from Beatles pastiche, to introspective, acoustic lo-fi moochings and feedback blowouts. A calculated career retrospective.
Lyrically, this could be nothing but his last album.
Even the title 'From A Basement On the Hill' hints that at his high point, he was always underground, trapped in darkness, 'think I'll go and eat worms'... Indeed, the lyric on the self-sabotaging 'Pretty (Ugly Before)' runs 'Sunshine's been keeping me up for days'; a chronic pessimism, or even manic depression that could only lead to disaster.
His own comments on the human condition certainly don't ignore beauty, but highlight the gap between the beauty he has witnessed, or even created, and himself. His lack is apparent on 'Don't Go Down', where he implores an unnamed lover to 'stay with me', even on the wistful 'Ostrich & Chirping' does he notice that the subject is 'Already somebody's baby', but not his own. Alone and desolate.
The turning-point, and perhaps the only recording to capture the exact moment in which an individual makes the irreversible decision to take their own life, is the haunting (an over-used journalistic term, but in this case, wholly appropriate) 'A Fond Farewell' in which he declares his intentions towards suicide: 'This is not my life, just a fond farewell to a friend.'
After this point, the album seems to take an ethereal quality, a holistic beauty of acceptance, the reminiscent quality of the music commenting his trip down 'Memory Lane', and climaxing in the near-silent guitar playing of 'Little One' as his voice breaks down, leaving a last attempt at conveying his soul to a better place.
Perhaps, he is aware of the self-importance of his actions on the final song, 'A Distorted Reality Is Now A Necessity To Be Free', in which he allows a shred of indignant anger towards the world to push its way through the beauty, leading to his final violent act, in an emetic final gesture, before pleading the same Sun that kept him up earlier to 'Shine on me baby, 'cos it's raining in my heart.'
Utterly absorbing, emotionally draining, tragically constructed, yet clearly essential.