I don't want to suggest, even for a moment, that Elliott Smith's death was a "good" thing; it was a tragedy, plain and simple, regardless of your opinion of the man, his music, his demons, or death in general. However, even the most senseless loss has repercussions on the other side of the balance sheet. Smith's passing gave his work that most essential of credentials, an ending
All of the greatest bands stop; they recognize the moment when inspiration wanes, enthusiasm fades and songs begin to sound the same, and they pull the plug before the rest of us notice anything amiss. History likes tight little parcels of creativity, and it wraps up careers any way it can -- dissolution, madness, disappearance, even death provide the most essential sort of quality control. Brevity, it seems, is the soul of brilliance. When bands make an impact early in their careers, then continue long past their sell-by date, more extreme measures are called for: audience amnesia is induced. That's why, no matter how hard you try or how brilliant the music is, you'll never remember a new Dylan, Kinks or Rolling Stones record. Their quotas have already been met, their influence quantified.
From a Basement on the Hill brings Elliott Smith's story to an almost impossibly elegant end. Despite the whiff of controversy surrounding the disc (a handful of songs appear in a form other than that which Smith decreed "finished" prior to his passing), it doesn't seem disjointed, gratuitous or opportunistic. It's simply wonderful -- bristling with pop masterpieces large and small, and reassuringly unburdened by Smith's deep-seated malaise. The artist himself would likely have preferred a more ragged, careworn presentation, but nothing here sounds like a misstep -- not even "Ostrich and Chirping", which is precisely what its title promises.
A few tracks deserve special mention. "A Fond Farewell"'s fatalistic lyrics will be analyzed for years to come, but the tune itself is upbeat and polished -- a warm acoustic guitar lead, carefully chorused vocals and a hummable melody. Don't let the talk of happy highs and suicides get you down; "This is not my life," Smith insists, "It's just a fond farewell to a friend." "King's Crossing" sketches out its sixties pop framework in luxuriant detail -- you'll spend two and a half minutes with its heavily effected guitars, plaintive piano and confident vocals before it blossoms into a sublime barrage of drums and cymbals. "Let's Get Lost" will wrap its gentle, cozy atmosphere and modest-yet-detailed guitar melody around you like a favorite sweater -- you'll want to find your own beautiful place to get lost in its deceptively simple tune. "Pretty (Ugly Before)" deserves a mention simply for the presence of Smith's former Heatmiser compadre Sam Coomes on bass and backing vocals, but listen carefully -- there's a lot of interesting stuff going on beneath the primary melody, and Smith's butter-smooth Beatleseque vocals are perfect.
All of these songs seem understated in the wake of "Coast to Coast", a clamorous, fuzzy, production-intensive jolt of an opener. The guitars are unpredictable, frayed, muscular, almost discordant, energized by a wealth extra drums (thank you, Steven Drodz and Aaron Sperske), teflon vocals and a melody that reshapes itself as you listen. How did we let ourselves lose a man who writes songs this compellingly varied?
Each song on From a Basement on the Hill has something special, magical, to recommend it, and none of them will tone your "skip"-button finger. Given time, each one will become your absolute favorite; it'll flood your memory for days or weeks, then be supplanted by one of its fellows. The thrill of newness, though, is finite from this point onward: this is the end of Elliott Smith's road. Don't hold out hope for the diminishing returns of B-sides and unreleased nuggets -- accept the ending gracefully. From a Basement on a Hill captured Smith at the top of his game, and that's the best way to remember him.