From A Basement On The Hill
By: Eric Greenwood
Elliott Smith died of two stab wounds to the heart just over a year ago in his Los Angeles apartment. Whether those stab wounds were self-inflicted or the result of someone else’s rage is irrelevant. Smith is dead, and he left behind his final album, From a Basement on the Hill, only half-finished. Posthumous albums are so hard to accept into artists’ cannons, as too many questions linger as to what could have been had they seen them to fruition.
So, there will always be an asterisk by From a Basement on the Hill since it isn’t truly a Smith album. It’s a compromised ‹ yet close ‹ approximation made by engineers delegated by the arbiters of Smith’s estate. Even with so many unanswered questions as to what Smith intended for his sixth album, it holds its own against even his sparsest and most intimate work.
Despite its bombastic production and elaborate arrangements, XO has always been my favorite Smith album. Most of his die-hard fans dismiss it simply because it was his cleanest and most commercial outing, but the songwriting soared with countless, effortless melodies and memorable hooks, proving Smith to be a talent above and beyond what his lo-fi recordings could ever have predicted. His hushed, angelic voice married well with the Beatles-inspired production and his melancholic outlook held steadfast amidst such catchy harmonies.
His second major-label effort, Figure 8, sounded forced and flat compared to its predecessor, but it still outshone most of the singer-songwriter drivel that bubbled up in the indie rock community around that time. In the four years since Figure 8, Smith worked with several producers on what would become From a Basement on the Hill. Ironically, Rob Schnapf, whom Smith had worked with for years, finished the mixes, despite the fact that Smith hadn’t worked with him at all on this album.
In the months directly preceding his death, Smith had been obsessed with The Beatles’ White album and wanted From a Basement on the Hill to reflect that album’s jarring diversity. His songwriting had always hailed from the shadows of John Lennon’s darker compositions, so emulating The Beatles came naturally without sounding deliberate or awkward, and the influence is deeply embedded here.
From a Basement on the Hill won’t impact music on any level even remotely resembling that of the White album, of course, but it is still a work of staggering beauty. Smith’s multi-dimensional songwriting is in top form. From glimmering rockers like “Coast to Coast” to prophetic confessionals like “A Fond Farewell,” Smith showcases his musical prowess with whispered harmonies and dark, self-deprecating lyrics. Though, it’s probably tainted by unknowing yet well-meaning collaborators, From a Basement on the Hill elevates Smith’s legacy to an echelon that few songwriters ever achieve in life or death