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Touching From a Distance

 

Elliott Smith: From a Basement on the Hill

Anti-, 2004

Rating: 3.9

 

 

Posted: October 20, 2004

By Laurence Station

Warren Zevon got the last word; Elliott Smith did not. Zevon knew he was dying, and made sure his final album, The Wind, served as a proper send-off. Such tidy closure is rarely afforded to the lot of us -- musician or not. Elliott Smith, a presumed suicide, had an argument with his girlfriend and, in a fatal lapse of reason, stabbed himself in the chest. Nearly a year to the day later, the album Smith was working on at the time, From a Basement on the Hill, arrives. And it enjoys anything but the "Keep Me in Your Heart" summation Zevon so eloquently contrived. The choice of track sequence and final mix was left to others -- hardly a definitive capper on Smith's impressive catalog. From a Basement on the Hill is a posthumous collaboration between the deceased and those who loved and worked with him; it can't help but impart resonance beyond the original intent. The larger issue is whether Hill is a progression of Smith's work, or a carefully constructed tribute to the man and his music.

Unsurprisingly, Hill feels more like a retrospective than a steady gallop toward the next stage in Smith's artistic advancement. Big orchestral sweeps, more intricate arrangements and diverse instrumentation all point to the direction Smith was heading. Perhaps, as David McConnell (who worked with Smith during the recording process) claimed, Smith wanted to return to the stripped-down, raw (by necessity, mind you) sound of his early solo period. But his documented body of work doesn't support such a retreat. As Smith enjoyed larger advances, he took advantage of superior equipment and studios, consistently expanding on his painfully introspective, '60s pop-inflected songcraft. Listening to his debut, Roman Candle, and 2000's Figure 8 reveals just how ambitious Smith had become in terms of what he wanted his music to sound like; he was striving for nothing less than becoming a one-man Beatles. (McConnell has been quoted as saying that Smith intended Hill to be a double album, in the sprawling, helter-skelter vein of the White Album.) Sadly, we'll never enjoy the indulgence of such a creation.

Hill's final buff job was left to Smith's longtime producer, Rob Schnapf, and Smith's former girlfriend (and current Jick -- as in Stephen Malkmus and the) Joanna Bolme. The end result is a collection of songs that gesture to Smith's lo-fi, acoustic early years (the elementary elegance of "Let's Get Lost"), the maturation and sturdier production values of the XO period ("Pretty (Ugly Before)"), and, most intriguingly, parts unknown, from the distortion-heavy, wildly fuzzed out "Coast To Coast" to the crushing bombast and deliriously messy fadeout of "Shooting Star," an unapologetically nasty assault on a "use 'em and lose 'em" ex-lover.

The fiery, emboldened "King's Crossing" is the best track of the bunch; utilizing stabbing chord changes and subtle piano parts, Smith feeds lines just begging for postmortem interpretation ("I can't prepare for death any more than I already have") and unavoidably ironic insights ("The judge is on vinyl / Decisions are final / And nobody gets a reprieve"). Multilayered, complex but not overstated, this is the sound of an artist in total command of his craft.

Other highlights include the rumbling "Don't Go Down," which trades on a hard-rock blueprint and smartly exhibits Smith's skill at economically sketching a striking moment in time: "She had a dream / Woke up in shock / She had seen / Her own body outlined in chalk." "Memory Lane" is quintessential Smith, a chipper ditty featuring rhyming couplets utterly incongruous with the peppy beat supporting them: "Isolation pushes past self-hatred, guilt and shame / To a place where suffering is just a game."

On the downside, there are instances where a little editing would have gone a long way toward improving things. Case in point: the warm, finger-picked "A Fond Farewell," in which Smith adds an unbalanced third line that dilutes the effectiveness of the verse: "Veins full of disappearing ink / Vomiting in the kitchen sink / Disconnecting from the missing link."

The sum effect of Hill is patchwork. But honestly, who can say what, if anything, would have sounded definitive? In the end, Hill is what it is and, for better or worse, it's Smith's final release (until the remaining tracks from these sessions turn up, that is). And what might Smith have made of all the fuss regarding what will most likely turn out to be his most commercially successful release? Perhaps a line from "Rose Parade," a track on his best album, Either/Or, provides a clue: "I'd say it's a sight that's quite worth seeing / It's just that everyone's interest is stronger than mine."

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