Most people who know me know that I have a nearly unhealthy obsession with Elliott Smith. As a singer-songwriter myself, I have admired his skill as a songwriter since I first heard him in 1996. His songwriting skills matched the melodic and lyrical beauty of some of my favorite songwriters: George Harrison, John Lennon, Neil Young, Nick Drake, etc…, and I tried to model my own skills after his. I never could; I am more of a Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, or Trey Anastasio type of songwriter, but I always tried.
Even if you think that you have never heard Elliott Smith, you probably have. The movie Good Will Hunting has 3 or 4 of his songs in it; one of which earned him an Oscar nomination (he lost to Celine Dion). Also, The Royal Tenenbaums has a scene in which “Needle in the Hay” is played.
Elliott Smith constructed short, pop melodies, and could put them in both gentle acoustic ballads and in louder Grunge-style rock songs. He was a skilled finger-picker and could play piano at a classical level. He also had a beautiful voice that I envied, and that voice carried his soul across every song he sung. He was a perfect blend of George Harrison’s beauty, Neil Young’s sadness, and the Grunge-era’s self-loathing.
He recorded these songs in a hasty, lo-fi style that added urgency to his sound that enhanced the troubled lyrical content. His was a troubled soul, and his songs often reflected his self-loathing and suicidal mind. It was common for Elliott to throw in self-deprecating remarks even in a touching love song. Take “Amity”, from 1998’s XO: “Amity, Amity, God don’t make no junk, but it’s plain to see He still made me.”
I first heard Elliott Smith in 1996, after my downstairs neighbor saw him at The Press Club in Sacramento. My neighbor (I can’t even remember his name anymore), bought Elliott’s self-titled second CD and made a tape of it for me. I listened to that until it wore down to nothing, and when his new album Either/Or came out in 1997, I bought that CD, and then his first two. Later, I would buy XO and Figure 8 as soon as they were released.
As much as it might have brought horror to Elliott if he knew this, I idolized his songwriting skills. I tried to write 3-minute pop ballads, but I could never stop short of 5- or 6-minute ramblings.
I finally got to see him live on December 18, 2001 at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco. That show was a mess. Elliott had clearly lost control of his drug habit, and was reportedly locked-up in his home, freebasing crack and heroin non-stop. I saw him on a very brief tour. It was clear that he was not up for a major outing. He walked on stage looking like a ghost. Pale, greasy, and thinner than usual, he played a string of brand new songs that no one had heard before stumbling through a few old classics at the aggressive prodding of the heckling crowd. He kept forgetting words, and even how to play some of these older songs. The crowd got restless, and Elliott’s discomfort became more and more evident as the show went on.
The best part of the show was when he did a tribute to the recently passed George Harrison by playing “Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth). It was beautiful. If you want to hear this train wreck of a show, you can hear the entire thing here…
The show was so shocking to me that I stopped listening to Elliott for about 10 years. When he died in 2003, I was so distraught that I couldn’t even think to listen to any of his beautiful music.
But I’m here to talk about his last album, From a Basement on the Hill. Fellow blogger Dusty Henry wrote a piece recently on Elliott Smith’s album, Either/Or. I am not trying to cop his style, but this exactly the kind of thing that I think about All.The.Time. I nominated him for The Very Inspiring Blogger Award because his post inspired me to write this very post. Go check him out.
Anyway, back to this…Released posthumously, this album was pieced together by Elliott’s old producers who basically tried to create songs out of numerous incomplete takes. The result is a rough and raunchy sounding album that is clearly unfinished.
Elliott began recoding these tracks while he was in the darkest depths of his drug addiction, and after he cleaned-up and got healthy, he reportedly wanted to throw everything away and start over. And then he died.
So, all the record company and producers had to work with was this mess of rough and incomplete recordings. Ultimately, it is a difficult album to listen to, but I call it Elliott’s dark horse. It is really one of my favorite albums. It certainly contains some of his best songs, even if the lyrical matter is darker and more depressing than anything else he had ever written. Maybe I only like it so much because I only listened to it for the first time in 2011, but I still enjoy it quite a bit.
By-the-way, I do not own any rights to these songs. I am only posting links to share them with my readers. If I offend some record or publishing company in any way, I will gleefully remove the links.
For the sake of brevity, I will only discuss my personal favorites from this album. The album begins with “Coast to Coast.” This rocker is an odd opener, since it is the roughest mix of the whole lot, but the song itself is fantastic. With the hook, “Anything that I could do, would never be enough for you”, it is unclear if he is talking about a lover, a friend, or record company executives. Played in his drop-C tuning, this is a dark drone with a driving beat. Like the other songs on this album, it is Elliott at his most honest. He tells his side of the conflict in the most stirring way he can.
The next song is one of my favorites to play. “Let’s Get Lost” is Elliott at his loneliest. The lyrics tell how a person just wants solitude. “I’ll burn every bridge that I cross to find some beautiful place to get lost”, also suggests his penchant for hiding out in his home and doing drugs all day. It is a beautiful song that I could imagine Neil Young writing during his dark period in the early 1970s.
“Pretty (Ugly Before)”, is another tale of self-loathing with “sunshine” and “pretty” being code words for drugs and being high, respectively. It is a beautiful song, and his voice just aches and makes the listener immediately want to give the guy a hug.
“Don’t Go Down” is a fantastic rocker that tells the story of a lover begging the protagonist to either not kill himself, or to quit drugs…either way, it’s all the same. It sounds autobiographical, but it could very easily just be another song. I get the sense that it is the kind of song that is true in the heart of the songwriter, but could easily be passed off as a work of fiction.
“Strung Out Again” is one of the most beautiful songs I have ever heard. Moreover, it is also the saddest song I have ever heard. Before his hibernation into crack and heroin land, he played this song a few times with his band, and it was a slightly less depressing love song called “Struck Out Again.” Later, when he had clearly lost control of his habits, the lyrics changed. This song can be seen as a sort of sequel to “Needle in the Hay”, another horror story about addiction.
I love this song so much. I play it in my living room a lot, just because it is so gorgeous. He usually played this song acoustically, but I love the production on the album. Very powerful. Probably the best produced song on the album.
“A Fond Farewell” tells the story of a friend watching a friend deteriorate. After seeing Elliott’s demise, it is easy to imagine this is autobiographical, but who knows? This is a fan favorite, even if it is not one of my own favorites, and it is a wonderfully constructed song.
“Twilight” is another beautiful song, however sad. It is a love song, and not entirely self-deprecating. The production on this song is sparse, and I would have liked to have heard Elliott complete it.
“A Passing Feeling” is a wonderful song that sounds like something from The Beatles’ White Album. The production is disjointed—obviously, only a few usable takes were available for the producers to use.
“Little One” is so gorgeous it sounds like a lullaby. However, it is a song about a junkie taking another hit and nodding off. I do love it. Take the lyrics away and one can just float along the clouds with this one. Still, the lyrics are telling of Smith’s condition at the time: “If I seem to be reckless with myself, it’s the fault of no one. All things have a place under the moon as well as the sun.” In addition, on an album filled with simple chord structures, this song is one of his more complex, and hearkens back to the more difficult songs on Figure 8 and XO.
The other songs on the album, “King’s Crossing”, “The Last Hour”, Memory Lane”, and “A Distorted Reality Is Now a Necessity to Be Free”, are okay, but not up to the standards that I have set for his songwriting. “A Distorted Reality…” is a fan favorite, and I do not understand why, but that it just me. “Ostrich & Chirping” is not even Elliott, and it is a mystery to all involved how it landed on this album.
Most Elliott Smith fans would probably point the new listener to his other albums before suggesting From a Basement on the Hill, but that does not mean that this album should be ignored. If one can get past the rough production quality and depressing lyrics, they might discover some gorgeous gems. Perhaps it is because this album is still relatively new to me, but I find myself listening to it more than the other ones these days.
I think that these are some of his best songs ever. If he had not died suddenly and tragically, this could have been his best album yet. Even though the songs are unfinished and the production is rough, I train my ears to listen to it as if it were a completed work. His greatest work.