Around this time last year, police detectives were examining the body of 34-year-old Elliott Smith and scouring the Los Angeles apartment the cherished singer-songwriter shared with his girlfriend, trying to determine whether or not the two mortal knife wounds to his heart were self-inflicted. Although suicide was presumed -- given Smith's long, well-publicized battles with depression, drug abuse, and alcoholism -- there was enough physical evidence to at least raise the possibility of homicide. Ultimately, the coroner's office ruled that the manner of his death could not be determined with absolute certainty.
And so now many of Smith's fans will perform their own autopsy on From a Basement on the Hill -- the album he'd been working on at the time of his passing, posthumously completed by longtime producer Rob Schnapf and an ex-girlfriend, bassist Joanna Bolme -- and look for clues that may define his departure, as others have done with Nirvana's In Utero, Joy Division's Closer, and Nick Drake's Time of No Reply. Basement could be taken as a fifteen-track, 58-minute suicide note; some of its song titles, such as "Twilight" and "A Fond Farewell," lend themselves to that interpretation, as do many of its lyrics. "I've got no new act to amuse you/I've got no desire to use you, you know/But anything that I could do would never be good enough for you," Smith sings on the album's opener, "Coast to Coast," a tempest of guitars and piano introduced by a wraithlike orchestral passage.
But focus too squarely on death, however captivatingly it's conveyed, and you might miss all the life that's in Basement, too. Themes of despair and addiction were never far from Smith's lips throughout his career, yet he possessed the grand ability to make the poison go down like honey. Both his silvery tone and luminous melodies imbued even the darkest moments with some sense of solace and hope. There's no shortage of uplift here, from the tender, optimistic pull of his croon on "Pretty (Ugly Before)" to the bright buoyancy of "Memory Lane" and "Little One," both especially conspicuous nods to his beloved Beatles (the former evokes "Blackbird," the latter, "Michelle"). And, at points, he seems to be clinging onto something. At the end of "King's Crossing" he repeats, "Don't let me get carried away," the verse's double meaning generating one of the disc's most heartbreaking moments.
We may never know how or why Elliott Smith left us. All that's certain is the tragedy of his demise, and the beauty of the one last gift he left behind.
By Michael Alan Goldberg