From a Basement on a Hill by Elliott Smith

Elliott Smith From a Basement on the Hill

Perhaps the persistent image of the tortured artist is a romantic oversimplification. In the case of the late singer-songwriter Elliott Smith, the evolution of this idea as he envisioned it on his sixth [posthumous] album, From a Basement on the Hill is apparent in the last song’s title, “A Distorted Reality Is Now A Necessity To Be Free.” On From a Basement on the Hill this distortion is in ample supply.

Similar to Kurt Cobain’s wish on In Utero to return Nirvana to it’s Bleach-era state of punk-rock purity, Elliott Smith approached what would be his last project with an all-consuming passion to recapture his d.i.y. Indie roots. An audiophile perfectionist who shared Cobain’s obsession with recorded detail—every mistake placed exactly where it is supposed to be—Smith recorded and re-recorded the songs on From a Basement on the Hill ad infinitum (who knows if he was truly finished tinkering with any of the recordings)? Reportedly disgusted with the slick production on his DreamWorks label releases X/O and Figure Eight, he systematically “degraded” From a Basement on the Hill tracks such as “Shooting Star” “Coast to Coast” “Don’t Go Down” and “Strung Out Again.” All of these at times sound jumbled up and muddy, but ultimately the mix works: everything tumbles beautifully into place on the brink of total collapse. These rockers are juxtaposed with some of the songwriter’s best trademark gorgeous, intimate acoustic guitar/vocal tracks like “Let’s Get Lost” “Twilight” “The Last Hour” “A Fond Farewell” and “Little One.”

But it is three songs in particular that otherwise defy description other than perfect, that put this cd over the top as Smith’s personal best. The first, “Pretty (Ugly Before)” is an affirmation of faith in the absolute notion that we can never truly love ourselves except in the abstract, that our utterly human acts are unconscionable, and the only forgiveness is found in the mirror of a soul we cannot be sure exists at all. “Is it destruction, that you’re required to feel? Or does someone want you, someone who’s more for real.”—He sings, reminding us of the last photos of Smith taken with bold self-inflicted ink calligraphy on his arms proclaiming KALI THE DESTROYER. The second, “King’s Crossing” begins with a schizophrenic’s head babble segueing into sustained feedback and an unearthly chorus of hell’s angelic choir, who transform into anguished blues Beach Boys… “…they tell me whisky works better than beer. The judge is on vinyl, decisions are final, and no one gets a reprieve…” The tension builds to a stomping drum break, crescendo, then back down, up again… “this is the place where time reverses, dead men talk to all the pretty nurses.” Truly spooky, epic, monumental, worthy of Carson McCullers stuff, with enough self-references to lead some to conclude its all one long suicide note. Now, you could just as easily say that was this guy’s life, so don’t dismiss it as a death trip without also flipping on the yin-yang…

The third, and most perfect among the three perfected songs is “A Passing Feeling” which easily explains what we all do naturally, and unnaturally for that matter: go ahead and live our lives while waiting for something to happen. The hook is “stuck here waiting for a passing feeling” delivered as if there is nothing else to do, nothing as important as grasping after those fleeting precious moments that never last long enough, that descend and depart like ghosts, leaving unrepeatable memories that we want to live over and over again anyway, often despite our resolve to do something else, maybe something considered more constructive or responsible. “took a long time to stand, took an hour to fall…”

Smith recorded much of the album at David McConnell’s Satellite Park studios; Satellite Park is located on a hill, hence the title From a Basement on the Hill. McConnell states that Smith wanted to use “Shooting Star” as the album’s opener, and considering that Smith’s remaining family oversaw the selection of the fifteen tracks used out of fifty total recordings, criticism that they “sanitized” what Smith conceived of as a double-album of 30 tracks, taking otherwise excellent songs with references to self-destruction like “Suicide Machine” out of the loop, may mean that their distorted reality is now a necessity to be free of guilt.

For some people, it is worth risking your life in order to create great art. Some seem to have no choice but to do so: go ask Vincent Van Gogh, he’s hanging out down at the bar with Elliot Smith. And the drinks are on the house.

All material in this section copyright © John Eberly