I'm sure a lot of reviews for this album are going to start like this, but I don't care...
I remember reading the news of Elliott Smith's death a year ago. My first reaction wasn't of sadness but of bewilderment. Of course, it being the internet, I first questioned the validity of the story. Then, after seeing it a few more places it started to settle in as truth and my mood finally turned to sadness. He has always been a big part of my music listening. From the moment when I first stumbled upon his music I was hooked by the earnest sincerity conveyed in his hushed melodic masterpieces. And with each new work he produced you would prepare yourself for some sort of let down or slump to show it's face... but it never came. And now, as is the case when I listen to Jeff Buckely or Nick Drake, there is a dark cloud hovering over Smith's final album.
I think the saddest part about it all is that this album seemed to indicate a turning over of a new leaf for the songwriter. Well, not as much a new leaf as a return to his punk rock roots. Don't mistake me as saying it's Heatmiser revisited, but Smith seemed to be falling back in love with the sound of an electric guitar. Songs like the opener "Coast to Coast" and "Don't Go Down" feature darkly distorted guitars lying right underneath the classic strumming you've grown accustom to. It's not the happy-go-lucky pop of Figure 8, but it's not mired in deprecation like the brilliant Either/Or.
The standard vocal melodies are present, playing off each line so fantastically you would swear that he hasn't layered his voice this well ever. In fact, the more you listen to the diversity on From A Basement On The Hill you'd be hard pressed to say Smith never created such a well rounded album. From the soft ballads he was famous for, to his return to rock arrangements, this album houses some of the best material we have heard from him in a while.
Lyrically he hadn't missed a beat either. Vaguely painted pictures of personal struggles and life moments we can all relate to litter the landscape of this record. It's what made Smith seem so close to all of his fans. People related to the yearning in his voice and words. They weren't from a man forcing emotion into his songs, but a person being honest with himself and his listeners. That being said, I don't think you can read too much into the words in some of the songs on this record. Some people are bound to claim foreshadowing in songs like "A Fond Farewell" and "Pretty (Ugly Before)", but I think to enjoy the music as he had intended you have to put what happened after the recording out of your mind.
While this is the last proper studio album from Smith, I have a feeling a lot of material will be unearthed in the coming years. But this still will be the last cohesive album released by this amazing songwriter, and he left us with one of his strongest albums to date. Sure it's bittersweet, but enjoy From A Basement On The Hill for the great album that it is and not as an end to Smith's life.