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Featured Review: Elliot Smith

Elliott Smith - From a Basement on a Hill
8 out of 10
By Brannon Larson
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Thursday, October 21, 2004
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Listening to an Elliott Smith album is like going to the funeral of an absolute stranger. You feel like a voyeur who shouldn't be watching or listening, but the pain is so interesting you can't seem to pull away. All six of his works, including his latest and presumably final album From a Basement on a Hill, are singed deeply by the melancholy anguish of decay and sadness.

When the music world heard of Smith's suicide exactly one year ago today, it wasn't an overwhelming surprise. Certainly the death of such a heralded genius was tough to stomach, but his weapon of choice was even harder to understand - he had stabbed himself in the chest, leaving a single wound directly above his heart.

Such a dramatic death lends an almost unbearable weight to his final album, an album he had been working on for two years prior to his death, an album that his label and Web site claim was almost completed before last Oct. 21. The final arrangement and production of the album was completed by his ex-girlfriend Joanna Bolme, a member of Stephen Malkmus' The Jicks.

The 15 tracks of From a Basement on a Hill offer another glimpse into the shattered and fragmented world of Smith, ranging from the hard drums and succinct lyrics of "Don't Go Down" to the haunting imagery of "A Fond Farewell." As a whole the album has problems of flow, jumping between sharply produced guitars and shimmering tambourines without much transition. Smith's voice also shifts periodically from a bright shaft of energy to a downtrodden harshness not heard since his earlier works like Roman Candle.

The early track "Let's Get Lost" is a slight and seemingly lighthearted track that works entirely upon a simple acoustic guitar, reminiscent of Nick Drake at his most accessible work. The idealistic yearning of the lyrics, where Smith searches for "some beautiful place to get lost," have an emotional weight and immediacy missing from his last album, 2000's Figure 8. That intimacy pushes its way into the next track, "Pretty (Ugly Before)," a song thick with twangy guitar chords and heavy piano arrangements-the perfect setting for Smith's confessional and even confrontational lyrics.

"King's Crossing" is the album's centerpiece, driven by keyboards and heavy-handed drums into the oddly poetic apocalypse of Southern California, described by Smith as though he's seen it once or twice already. The keyboard is haunting and intense around the center of the song, climaxing behind Smith's oddly simple line, "I can't prepare for death more than I already have."

The final track, "A Distorted Reality is Now a Necessity to be Free," is a bluesy sendoff where Smith is "floating in a black balloon," with a hard-edged piano riff and a constricted larynx. It's as though he's battling a terrible sinus infection, a head cold that doesn't restrict his shifting and undulating voice.

From a Basement on a Hill is difficult to judge in one listen, so give yourself a few listening sessions before deciding upon an opinion. After a week of "repeat" on my iPod, I can honestly say the album lacks a cohesive image or sonic idea, but the difficulty of the details and the intimacy of Smith's utterances makes From a Basement on a Hill essential for anyone concerned with last few years of an amazingly truncated career. Its beauty lies within the melancholy anguish of self-loathing and the frankness with which Smith discusses his own pain.

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