There is no lesson here, nor after-school special, nor . . . nothing. Big or otherwise.
From a Basement on the Hill is a teardrop, ellipsoid and salty, refracting. As far as Elliott Smith’s eyes—what one saw in them or imagined it was like to look through them—you might just leave it at this: a line in Bubba Ho-Tep, a philosophical farce starring a cowboy mummy, a black JFK, and Elvis Presley (Bruce Campbell) impersonating himself in a convalescence home. Says Presley, disgusted by a reminder of his acting career and on the verge of announcing a valiant mission: “In the movies I always played heroic types. But when the stage lights went out, it was time for drugs and stupidity and the coveting of women.”
“I’ve seen the movie, and I know what happens,” Elliott Smith admits amid “King’s Crossing” ‘s mutating organ-and-guitar textures. This after announcing, “I can’t prepare for death more than I already have”—then mentioning, à la Conor Oberst, the “method acting” that pays his rent. Clean and convalescing at the time Basement was recorded, he could be said to be impersonating Elliott Smith, if he’d ever done anything else. (Smith’s family asked longtime producer Rob Schnapf and ex-g.f. Joanna Bolme to mix the album after Smith died last fall.) One is tempted to go to the drugs (the women we’ll get to): They are everything and nada. If there’s any use in Elliott Smith and the Big Nothing, a quick-and-dirty (dirty because that’s how it made me feel) bio by Benjamin Nugent, it’s the tip on how his early songs about riding the white lady came before he ever did.
That said, let’s put aside the booze, heroin, crack, and prescriptions. But let’s not drop acid. Smith remade folk, the Beatles, and good old-fashioned indie rock in his own image. The psychedelia Smith discovers here he doesn’t exactly drape over himself like a Technicolor coat, but it permeates. As psychedelia is wont to do, of course; not everything Technicolor covers, not even in old movies, from back when polychromatics had a name. Elliott Smith (1995) is stark and harrowing; his subsequent efforts lush, bombastic, and always beautifully well laid. The new album smears this palette into sooty, disheveled garage surrealism—true colors for a complicated, complicating individual. The script for “King’s Crossing” requires some sorting; likewise, the song’s chorus swoosh whirs together keys, layered coos, drum trails, and guitar ripples.
As Smith gradually turned the dial in his final sessions, airwave dissonance crept into his long-adopted pop. If his voice—its throaty, reluctantly fragile murmur—has a match besides poorly recorded acoustic guitar, it’s the musical static fringing this disc. The real Elliott Smith actor was more Brando than bruised indie boy. He told interviewers he once wanted to be a firefighter because he thought such simple, useful—manly—work was his only exit from the patriarchy and oppression of women. This idea makes me dizzy. Reasonable people may disagree, but Smith never whined—only mourned, lashed out, blamed, regretted, and wondered at self-destruction. His bouts of unalloyed bitterness sprung from macho masochism.
Depending on your angle, From a Basement on the Hill is thoughtfully detached, bitterly resigned, somewhat enlightened, or utterly frustrated. The typically gorgeous minimalist ballads are his most heartbreaking: In “Let’s Get Lost,” all unbearable lightness and quaver, he burns “every bridge,” smothering love in the smoke; “Last Hour” could be an early home recording but for its weariness; crickets chirp in “Twilight,” as he either reaches out to someone or, more likely, remembers someone reaching out to him. “Don’t Go Down” makes the most of the album’s bum-trip tinge (cf. the aptly named tracks “Shooting Star” and “A Distorted Reality Is Now a Necessity to Be Free”), with peacock fans of reverbed guitar plowing into feathery drifts. Its masterly opening line: “I met a girl, snowball in hell/She was hard and as cracked as the Liberty Bell.” In other words, Michelle, ma belle—au revoir. Let freedom ring.