Elliott Smith - From A Basement On The Hill

Mike Mantin 18/10/2004

Rating: 4/5

From A Basement On The Hill is much more than a suicide note. Like Warren Zevon's The Wind, Joy Division's Closer or Hope Of The States' debut The Lost Riots, it is too good an album to be filed under 'made just before a death'. To prove this, just listen to opener Coast To Coast: not much of Smith's earlier work contained crashing drums and the lyrics, "is there anything I can do?" This album is too beautiful to be listened to in sympathy. It may have a spirit looming over its entire duration, but it's a triumphant final hurrah.

From A Basement... will sadly be Smith's final work. Dying of two stab wounds in the chest just about a year before this album's release, the world of singer-songwriters has never been quite the same. Sure, we have umpteen grumpy dustman look-alikes who can pour all their sorrow into minor chords, but this scruffy tunesmith always had something else. A heavenly voice, perhaps, or just the ability to write morbid songs that address the listener as "you idiot kid" and still sound listenable, something that most dole-queue miserablists can only dream of.

Even if you try not to think about the tragic situation that accompanies its release, this still deserves a place amongst his finest work, both lyrically and musically. Full-on rock number Coast To Coast and upbeat strummer Pretty (Ugly Before) are surprisingly optimistic for a posthumous release. Fans of the stripped-down, frequently acoustic sound (emulated but never equalled) that made his name on Either/Or and his eponymous second album will find many rewards to reap. It's on these tracks where the tragedy is most painfully apparent: Strung Out Again hints at Smith's drug habit which led to constant depression and perhaps suicide, while the likes of King's Crossing and Twilight find Elliott alone, sometimes contemplating what made him in the state he was when he wrote them.

This album will be essential until well after the mourning ends. With the aid of friends and family, Elliott Smith has crafted another collection of songs that are bleak and lonely but somehow life-affirming. It would have gained fans and warmed hearts even without hype, because these songs are just too joyous to be listened to only for sympathy. This is not a pathetic last gasp; it's a triumphant goodbye to an exceptional talent.