A guitar and a hushed voice go a long way. Elliott Smith, whose death in October 2003 dealt the music community a severe blow, was considered by many to be an indie rock pioneer. To his fans, Elliott wasn’t just an alternative icon – he was an underappreciated genius, with songs awash in 1960s pop homages and bitter lyricism. His posthumous album, From a Basement on the Hill, is a strikingly beautiful, yet startlingly sad compilation of songs recorded before his death.
Before you begin to listen, you must be warned – this ain’t your mother’s pop music. This is some dark stuff. “King’s Crossing” sounds like an outtake from the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds re-recorded by Marilyn Manson in a demon underworld. The first track, “Coast to Coast,” conjures up White Album-era Beatles and tosses in 10 shots of vodka for effect. One of the standout tracks on the album, “Fond Farewell,” contains lyrics that would make Trent Reznor himself weep – “A little less than a happy high / A little less than a suicide” – fine words from the only singer who could combine giddy pop and dark solipsism with such ease.
Undoubtedly, this is an excellent work. The album seamlessly merges his quieter, folkier period with his psychedelic burnout experiments from Figure 8 and XO. However, one must wonder how Basement would have fared had Elliott survived to its completion. Songs like “Don’t Go Down” and “Little One” aren’t bad – they just don’t sound complete. Smith was notorious for his musical brilliance in his later years, and given a few more months, this could have been a full-out classic. Nevertheless, this is quite a fond farewell as it is. We miss you, Elliott. Rest in peace.
[Matt Cappiello needs to hang around the office more, so I have something witty to say about him.]