The beautiful coda that Elliott Smith didn't get
Listening to Elliott Smith's posthumous release, From a Basement On the Hill, can make you feel like a musical voyeur. Smith's haunting, dark alt-pop always possessed the ring of veiled autobiography, but in light of his shocking stabbing death a year ago (presumed, but not officially determined, to be a suicide), the collection of unfinished tracks he left behind inevitably read like chapters in a lengthy suicide note.
The spare magnificence of "A Fond Farewell" particularly overflows with intimations of mortality: "a dying man in a living room," "a little less than a suicide," and "it's just a fond farewell to a friend/who couldn't get things right." Hinting at romantic discord, the tortured, heavy waltz of "Don't Go Down" opens with an unnervingly harsh recollection: "I met a girl, snowball in hell/she was hard and as cracked as the Liberty Bell." And in an apparent reference to his much-conjectured-upon struggles with chemical dependency, he tartly tells someone (himself?), "the drugs you've got won't make you feel better."
Tempting as it may be to draw conclusions about a tragic end to a mysterious life, these lyrics only raise eyebrows because we know what happened to Smith shortly after this music was recorded. In truth, his work was always melancholy, a graceful blend of soaring melodicism and despairing introspection. As with Leonard Cohen or the Sister Lovers-era
Basement features some of Smith's most intoxicating tunes, from the bouncy jangle-pop of "Pretty (Ugly Before)" to the "Blackbird" homage of "Let's Get Lost" and the baroque "A Passing Feeling." The curators of this project, Smith's friends Rob Schnapf and Joanna Bolme, completed the recordings with such care that you'd swear Smith played every part himself (his normal modus operandi). The album flags slightly toward the end, but it holds together surprisingly well, giving Smith the artist the kind of fittingly beautiful coda that Smith the human being didn't get. •