Elliott Smith - From a Basement on the Hill
16th Nov 2004
Listening to "From a Basement on the Hill", the posthumous album from Elliott Smith, is an extremely emotional experience. Even without the prior knowledge of his self-inflicted, fatal knife-wound to the chest you would need to be emotionally stunted not to be affected by the lyrics of this album. Add to this the quality songsmithing and you start to see a classic in the making. It's probably his best album to date... what a great shame he's not alive to lap up the glory. He was only 34.
I'm not suggesting for one minute that I understand the "frustrating fireworks" going on inside Smith's head. I can only make an assessment based on what I've read over the years and what I hear on his albums; but there's no denying his lyrically blatant mental anguish. For whatever reason, drug addiction, relationship breakdown, low self-esteem, self-loathing, anger, fear and grief, all likely contributing factors, Smith knew how to write music and sing.
A prime example of his beautifully bleak lyrics can be heard on track 3 Pretty (Ugly Before) where contrasting words, like the song title, are manipulated to create at once a positive image and, in the same breath it's turned into, a negative; e.g. Sunshine, been keeping me up for days. The whole album is like this, making it quite an effort to appreciate lyrically at first, which is why repeated listening is important. It took me more than ten full listens to really start enjoying it.
My high point is pitched perfectly in the middle of the album at track 7. King's Crossing is a desperately emotional song; it actually brings tears to my eyes as I listen to it (again and again and again). What a belter. I love emotional music. Importantly though, what makes this song such a success is the combination of brilliant lyrics AND quality music. For example, from 2.33 to 3.01 the power of the two components is incredible. And again from 3.33 to 4.01; the latter culminating in the plea "gimme one good reason not to do it", when contemplating his options before an oncoming train.
He would have been a successful poet if he didn't possess such strong, song writing ability. He listened to and loved music from a very young age and you can hear one of his biggest influences, George Harrison, prevalently throughout his whole back catalogue. In particular on "A Basement on the Hill" the soft, backing-vocals and descending, hand-picked guitar notes on Little One, the strong lead guitar on A Distorted Reality Is Now A Necessity To Be Free, the quirky sound-effect at 3.32 on Shooting Star and the raw, soul-baring accoustic numbers like Let's get Lost and Memory Lane all scream out George Harrison to me... and there's nothing wrong with that at all... I love George Harrison too!
If you're new to Elliott Smith, "From a Basement on the Hill" is a testing but rewarding introduction; if you get past ten listens, you'll be richer, I guarantee it.
Rating: 9.5/10 (after 50+ listens)