CD Review: From a Basement on a Hill by Elliot Smith

With the opening song, sailing in on writhing phrases, riding the wave into raw, forceful drums, “Coast to Coast” enters shakily into the mouth and mind of Elliot Smith.

Elliot Smith’s album From a Basement on a Hill, a compilation of un-released songs on ANTI-, provides a look into the man’s last words to the world.

His tender and prolific lyrics speak of lost dreams and a broken heart, failure and loss of purpose, and the fragmented soul behind the music.

The music is a departure from his typical acoustic numbers, and his chord progressions and harmonies stretch to the brink of disaster. The desperation is soft but dangerous, tearing at the listener’s ability to internalize his music.

Drifting in with tender harmonies and breaking apart with booming drums, “King’s crossing” has some of the most profound lyrics Smith ever wrote. This song begs someone to stop him from self-destruction, begging for salvation, and though Smith was known to write heart wrenching words, he had before his death in 2003, perfected that ability to express more than a single sitting could ever reveal.

But Smith’s sentimentality could never be accused of being over the top; he disguises it too well with brilliance. His song “twilight” realizes this fragile technique, his crooning voice fighting against the struggle of the words, faltering sometimes in the notes to find them with a sudden stretch upward.

The universality of his lyrics doesn’t negate that they are inimitable. Perhaps one of the reasons Elliot Smith was never internationally renowned is because of the difficulty in placing him. There’s something raw and yet perfectly polished in his music. He left nothing and everything up to the imagination, but the mystery of his combined guitar and voice is capable of evoking very specific emotions in the listener.

His death in 2003 was sudden to many, but his disappearance from the music scene was not so sudden. He had taken a sabbatical from touring for quite awhile, writing songs and recording for much of it. When he finally began touring again, there was a presence in the crowd, the ghost in Smith’s songs touched the audience, chilling and haunted.

The man on stage desperately loved his music, tenderly playing each song, fumbling and embarrassed by his loss of place, but he pulled through, like he was struggling through wreckage. I was fortunate enough to attend one of the last concerts he performed in Los Angeles, but it was a sad and emotional thing for everyone to watch.

Elliot Smith’s adoration of music stretched into the hearts of his fans, and it is the fortune of anyone who knew him or loved him, whether in person or in musical adulation. The loss was a significant mark in any fans heart. This album pays tribute to the extraordinary talent of Elliot Smith.

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