Elliott Smith died nearly a year ago, leaving behind a back catalogue of five albums’ worth of quiet, sensitive pop-folk numbers. His rather more raucous side can be found in his previous incarnation as lead singer of the hardcore punk act Heatmiser, but it was the acoustic ballads that made his name, specifically his Oscar nominated soundtrack to the film Good Will Hunting.
His death, from two stab wounds to the chest, appeared to be self-inflicted at first, but rumours have persisted that Smith was actually murdered – rumours that seemed to gain credence when a coroner’s report said the evidence was inconclusive. This mystery will no doubt lead fans to pore over and analyse the music and lyrics on From A Basement On The Hill, the album that Smith was working on at the time of his death.
Posthumous releases are sometimes patchy affairs, yet thankfully this feels like a proper album. Whereas Jeff Buckley‘s Sketches For My Sweetheart The Drunk was an understandably rough collection, Smith’s songs come to us fully formed, only heightening the sense of tragedy that he’s no longer around to see their release.
Of course, Smith was always aware of his own mortality. Many of his songs dealt with death and the fleeting nature of life, and From A Basement On The Hill is no exception. Even the titles are a knowing wink to Smith’s ill-fated future: Fond Farewell, Last Hour and Twilight, while Strung Out Again appears to deal with Smith’s well-documented drug problems.
Musically, this seems to span all sides of Smith’s oeuvre. The opening Coast To Coast is one of Smith’s heaviest songs in years, the crunchy guitar chords bringing to mind his early days in Heatmiser. Yet the frail acoustic delicacies are still there – Memory Lane is on a par with Miss Misery for its sad wistfulness, Let’s Get Lost is a vintage Smith finger-picking acoustic number and Pretty (Ugly Before) is a heartbreaking look into Smith’s psyche.
Possibly the highlight here, though, is the deceptively upbeat Fond Farewell. With lyrics that will be pored over for years by Smith obsessives (“Veins full of disappearing ink, vomiting in the kitchen sink”) and an infectiously catchy melody, this stands up with the best of his work. If the song is to be his epitaph, then it’s a damn fine one.
For those who will inevitably look for pointers towards Smith’s state of mind, there’s plenty of material. “I’m beyond belief, in the help I require,” he muses in A Passing Feeling. Pretty (Ugly Before) seems to regard self-destruction as the only way in which he can feel “pretty”, and the disturbing Strung Out Again states ominiously: “I know my place, I hate my face / I know how I begin, and how I’ll end.”
Yet ultimately it would be a shame if From A Basement On The Hill became an object for emotional voyeurs to gloat over. That Smith was too sensitive for these times is beyond doubt – yet the fact that he was also a terrific, under-rated songwriter is also unquestionable. Although the uninitiated may find parts of this album heavy going, this is a typically bittersweet swansong from a much overlooked artist – a fond farewell indeed.