How does a fan review the final album of their favorite artist? I don’t know how people could do without losing their senses, so in order to keep me sane for the next week or so I will be writing this review with as much responsibility to the reader as humanly possible. Of course some of you may think that my review is somewhat biased and I can’t lie and say that it won’t be, but I’ll try my hardest to represent this album as truthfully as my little heart can.
Here’s the back story: Once upon a time there was this artist named Elliott Smith. He played in a little rock band named Heatmiser until he emerged as a solo artist. His solo career took off and one by one his albums were embraced by his ever growing fan base. Though never fully recognized by mainstream media, except for his Academy Award nominated “Miss Misery,” Smith continued to produce music that was not only technically amazing but extremely touching to anyone who would take the time to listen to it. His music was the window into his troubled lifestyle and in turn, his music was the doorway to his listeners’ inner feelings and thoughts. A year ago on October 21st, Elliott Smith was found dead in his apartment. He left behind an abundance of songs and From A Basement On The Hill is the album he was working on when he met his untimely death. With the help of his family and friends, the work was completed and released for those of us that needed one piece of closure- something more than a few words of sympathy from a distant person. This is his final goodbye, even though he may have never intended it to be.
From A Basement On The Hill begins with a long silence that soon breaks with the quiet beginning of “Coast to Coast.” The subtle beginning soon fades as the percussions kick in and his electric guitar spurts in the melody. As Smith’s familiar voice falls in, the first song of his last album finally seems to start. His trademark barely-there, whisper-like yet oddly strong and forceful voice sings; “And if you can’t help then just leave it alone, leave it alone, leave it alone, yeah just forget it,” with such a detached yet emotional (if that’s even possible) feel that it brought a sense of sadness and hope to this listener. The next track, “Let’s Get Lost,” is classic Elliott Smith- with solitary acoustics and his voice alone making this track a gorgeous example of how he could take two simple instruments and turn two minutes and twenty-seven seconds into something stunningly beautiful.
Most of these songs are familiar to his fans because in the few years before his death and after the release of 2000’s Figure 8, Smith toured and previewed acoustic versions of these songs. “Pretty (ugly before),” “Strung Out Again,” “A Fond Farewell,” “A Passing Feeling,” “Shooting Star,” and “A Distorted Reality Is Now A Necessity To Be Free” were all staples in his live shows and now here they are in what we’re told is their completed form. While some of these tracks remain pretty consistent with the live, acoustic versions (such as “A Fond Farewell,” “Pretty (ugly before)”, and “A Passing Feeling”), others employ more guitar riffs and a harder edge than that of their previous incarnations. The most dramatic shift in direction has to be “Shooting Star,” which instead of the delicate acoustic guitar now has blaring electrics which seems too abrasive for Smith’s voice and lyrics. This was the only disappointment I had with the album. I found the music of “Shooting Star” uneven when compared to Smith’s voice. The words he sings seem to come out of nowhere while the music (which up until that point was blaring and in-your-face) immediately slows down enough to catch up with his slow and gentle voice. As soon as the vocals stop, the abrasive music rushes to catch up making this track seem a little less like something Smith would have composed himself and a little more like something that was put together by those working on his album after his death.
“King’s Crossing” employs some of the prettiest music of the entire album. After the lyrics “I can’t prepare for death anymore than I already have” there is this emotional and overpowering swell of instruments which only continues to grow as the song continues. Smith’s voice displays a sense of urgency and calm restraint despite the uneasiness of the music and the lyrics. As a fan I can’t listen to “Twilight” and “Last Hour” without trying my hardest not to cry. It isn’t the lyrics that get me, despite their astounding quality, but the closeness I felt while listening to those songs. It felt as though he was closer to the listener in these songs then in any of the other tracks. “Twilight” a.k.a. “Somebody’s Baby” is stunningly intense and quietly heartbreaking. Once again its just Mr. Smith armed with an acoustic guitar and his impeccable voice. He can evoke emotion from the emptiest shells with the simplest of words and strum of his guitar; and he does so within this track. “Last Hour” has Smith’s voice taking the stage as the lead. His voice has a tiny tremble in it as he sings lyrics such as, “I’ll be staying down where no one else is gonna give me grief.” With this song it felt as though it was just Smith and I listening. His ability to take one out of the busyness of life and take them into solitary is something I haven’t seen in any of the singer songwriters currently in the market.
The album ends with a track that was officially released as a different version before this album came out. “A Distorted Reality Is Now A Necessity To Be Free” was released as a B-Side to a 7” single but with everything in life, its simplicity changed. On this album it’s faster than any of the other versions and boasts a smooth guitar melody that wasn’t present before. Smith’s voice seems to lift this tale of pessimism up to this almost hopeful place of solitude. This, his last track, seems to symbolize everything he produced; despite being largely considered sad and depressing his music contained the most hopeful and uplifting music I’ve heard in awhile.
Despite some of the seemingly prophetic lyrical content, Elliott Smith didn’t set out to create his final album when he began writing the songs that now comprise this album. And while this may not be considered his greatest work, it is a fitting goodbye to the fans that found solace in his words and a home in his music. I sit here listening to the piano melody of “A Distorted Reality Is Now A Necessity To Be Free” fade into silence and I know that this is what I’ve been fearing for the last year, this is the regretful end of my favorite artist’s career and even though I’m filled with a sadness I can’t begin to explain, I can’t help thinking what a beautiful end it was.