from a basement on the hill

This is not my life
It’s just a fond farewell to a friend

--Elliott Smith

Elliott Smith, 34, died on October 23, 2003 from twin stabs to the heart. Officially ruled a suicide, some doubts hang over the tragedy. Regardless, anyone well-versed in Smith’s albums knows this was a man living with serious emotional pain. Roman Candle (1995) and Either/Or (1997) were albums of crushed, spare majesty recalling Songs from a Room laced with the hooky melodies of the Beatles’ best. XO (1998) and Figure 8 (2000) saw Smith fleshing out the orchestration backing his singer-songwriter show.

To me, something was lost in the lushness. What this man could do better than others was to make one feel like he was their brokendown wise friend, whispering encouragement over coffee at Denny’s or on a late walk through crunchy leaves. I’ve been beaten but it’s still beautiful enough to be worth it. This is probably a matter of personal preference rather than objective critical discernment, but it’s important context to my feeling that from a basement on the hill (2004), Smith’s posthumous release, is his best album since Either/Or, and ranks with his best, Roman Candle. Rife with lyrics portentous in retrospect, from a basement on the hill is much more than fodder for the inevitable dissertations about yet another example of a creative genius plagued with depression (although part of me hates having to type a title in all lowercase letters). It’s a requiem. It’s a tightwire act between spare elegance and elegiac psychedelia. And it’s beautiful.

Some albums are fall albums. Recentish examples include Luna’s Bewitched, Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Cat Power’s You are Free. Wistful, minor chords, lyrics tending to auburn nostalgia, darkness in the corners of the soundscape. (Perfect example of a fall song is Bob Dylan’s DreamWith haunted hearts through the heat and cold/we never thought that we could get very old/we thought we could sit forever in fun/our chances really was a million to one.) from a basement on the hill is a fall album. Smith’s sadness suffuses the songs, like the acrid smell of far-off leaf fires tincturing the air.

I’m comfortable apart
it’s all written on my chart
and I take what’s given me
most cooperatively

Another incarnation of myself would put some of these tracks on a mix tape to listen to during late-night manic car rides, especially the afterwards part, coming home from a party or back from some abandoned factory where you could climb a wrought-iron ladder 5 stories up and see the break lights blinking a 30 mile swath to the city, the skyscrapers on the horizon, penciled ghosts in shimmering pollution. Back then the gravity of adult emotions was something like ballast, lending some authenticity to teenage creativity devoid of life experience. I can deal with some psychic pain/ if it’ll slow down my higher brain. Experience hardens such poses from novelty to truth. Days shorten, air comes alive with chill. The dark painful pleasures of coffee and sadness and remembering.

I can’t feel bad for death any more than I already have
all you can do now is watch the shells
the game looks easy
that’s why it sells.

Lyrics like these tempt the listener to obvious conclusions. Smith’s grappling with suicide, trying to convince himself to live, crying “Help!” To me, particularly on “King’s Crossing” and “Memory Lane”, Smith’s lyrics and arrangements suggest that he was reaching into something deeper. Isolation pushes you till every muscle aches/going down the only road it ever takes. Years of depression, heroin and self-doubt were pressing on Smith, and instead of giving up his style was being honed to its diamond quick, pushed where it had to go. For example, “Coast to Coast”, the stunning opening track, emerges from a sea of dischordant noise and feedback that sounds like an orchestra tuning up in a dream. The track ambles in nothing new, nothing new for you to use/I’ve got no new act to amuse. The brash insouciance of the lyrics, counterpoised with the teetering-on-the-edge-of-chaos drums and guitars backing Smith’s inimitable croon, it’s like Seymour tossing the perfectly arcing cigarette butt into a distant ashtray.

Leave it alone, leave it alone, just forget it
Coast to Coast
I’ll do everything I can, so you can be what you do.

I’m pretty sure that Coast to Coast is a reference to the radio show by the same name, broadcast in the wee hours favored by the depressed and the dispossessed and the elderly, centering around such subjects as paranormal occurrences, cold fusion and alien abductions. Somehow the callers to this show, snippets of whom are appended to the track, are voices for the collective unconscious of modern-day America. Incapacitated by fear and their own impotence, short-circuited by the complexity of all that is the case, numbed and dumbed by marketers and p.r. moguls, large parts of our country see bogeymen in the dark. It’s easier to deal with when they’re small and green and wield anal-probes. Resignation to the grim pageantry of America, 2003. Empathy and empty laughter and bathos and one last tilt at the windmill. This is the landscape of from a basement on the hill.

I met a girl, snowball in hell
she was hot, and as cracked as the Liberty Bell
I got her to come home and move in with me
and I said find a better place we could spend eternity
don’t go down
don’t go down
stay with me baby stay.

He went down and part of us went with. These last 15 songs are all that’s left but it’s no small thing. Farewell, damnit.

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