CD: Elliott Smith, From a Basement on a Hill


On Sunday night, Noel Gallagher appeared on Channel 4, commenting on Nirvana's lyrics. It is difficult to recall exactly what he said. The idea that anyone with a working knowledge of either Oasis's back catalogue or the English language would ask Noel Gallagher to discuss lyrics brought on a state of shock, from which the viewer did not easily recover. The gist, though, was that those who thought that Nirvana's final album, In Utero, constituted an extended suicide note were "talking bollocks".

In fact, Gallagher may have a point. It is a natural impulse to pore over the last album an artist makes before committing suicide, looking for explanations, but it is hardly a healthy pastime. At best, it reeks of morbid curiosity; at worst it fuels one of rock culture's least appealing traits, the urge to romanticise a sad and pointless waste of life.

However, the impulse seems almost impossible to avoid when confronted with the final album from US singer-songwriter Eliott Smith, who took his own life, aged 34, last October. Smith's five solo albums document a history of child abuse, depression, addiction and suicide attempts. And yet, his death still demands answers. Scores of people commit suicide, but very few of them opt for the method chosen by Smith, who stabbed himself twice in the heart. It seems such an unthinkable thing to do that it invites conjecture. And speculating on the contents of his last lyrics looks fairly harmless when compared with the internet rumours that Smith may have been murdered by his girlfriend, Jennifer Chiba. She has denied doing so.

Anyone searching From a Basement on a Hill for clues as to Smith's state of mind does not have to look too far. You suspect that even Noel Gallagher would be forced to concede that something was definitely up with whoever wrote these songs. "I'm through trying now, it's a big relief," Smith sings on The Last Hour, summing up the first of the album's three preoccupations: a slow, inexorable progress towards suicide. "You're keeping me around, until I finally drag us both down," runs Coast to Coast, summing up the second: clinging, diseased relationships, which rather suggests Smith's life with Chiba was not the bed of roses depicted immediately after his death. "It's Christmas time and the needle's on the tree, the skinny Santa is bringing something to me," offers King's Crossing, which brings us to the third.

Smith was certainly sober when he killed himself, but From a Basement on a Hill is thick with heroin references. King's Crossing concludes with a blast of ineffable junkie logic: "Give me one good reason not to do it." Well, because it might add to a complex series of psychological problems and lead you to kill yourself in the most distressing manner imaginable. Hindsight and logic, however, are undermined by the awful glee in Smith's voice. The horrible implication behind King's Crossing and the self-explanatory closer, A Distorted Reality Is Now a Necessity to Be Free, is that the album's third preoccupation was the only thing that brought any relief from the first two.

From a Basement on a Hill strips away the Beatles-influenced arrangements of Smith's most recent albums, leaving two things behind. The first is the acoustic ballad. Given the subject matter and context, their intimacy makes for uncomfortable listening, but they're positively breezy when placed next to the rock tracks. These offer a particularly woozy and disturbing brand of psychedelia, which seems intent on capturing not the transcendence of a drug experience, but the point where panic and nausea start to creep in. There are ghostly backing vocals, muttering voices buried deep beneath scrabbling guitar lines and crashing drums that hang on to the songs' rhythms only by their fingernails.

The lyrics are upsetting, the arrangements no picnic either, which begs the question of why anyone other than Smith devotees or the hopelessly ghoulish should bother. Happily, the answer lies in the melodies. Smith's suicide highlighted his way with a bleak lyric, but caused his way with a tune to be overlooked. The latter clearly never deserted him, even when everything else appeared to. If anything, Smith's songwriting talent appears to have been concentrated by despair: From a Basement on a Hill sounds like his most consistent album since 1995's Either/Or.

Admittedly, the album's beauty is usually of the heartbreaking variety - the impossibly fragile guitar figure behind Let's Get Lost, the careworn refrain of Twilight - but occasionally, the melodies appear to be fighting the song's subject matter. You are left wondering how anything as terrible as the anguish detailed in King's Crossing or Fond Farewell could inspire music this lovely, with its soaring choruses and beatific harmonies and irresistible pop sensibility. More importantly, you are drawn to the conclusion that these songs would be remarkable regardless of the circumstances in which they were written.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
The mysterious death of Elliott Smith

No one was too surprised when Elliott Smith - a boozy, druggy Oscar-nominated folk singer who had talked openly about killing himself - was found dead. But then the coroner's report raised a chilling new possibility: murder. By Alexis Petridis.

Alexis Petridis

19, Mar, 2004 @2:48 AM

Article image
Pop CD: Missy Elliott, Under Construction


Caroline Sullivan

08, Nov, 2002 @2:42 AM

Article image
CD: Elliott Smith, New Moon

(Domino, two CDs)

Maddy Costa

11, May, 2007 @10:55 PM

Article image
JJ Gonson's best photograph: a smile from Elliott Smith
‘There was this cult of personality around him – the dark, tortured figure – but this shows the tip of the hat, the sideways glance: that’s the actual person’

Interview by Daniel Dylan Wray

26, Aug, 2020 @1:39 PM

CD: Elliott Smith, New Moon

Ben Thompson on the late, sad-eyed troubadour who peaked before he was shortlisted for an Oscar, as these early gems reveal.

Ben Thompson

21, Apr, 2007 @11:11 PM

Article image
Obituary: Elliott Smith
Gentle singer with a delicate message of brutality and despair.

David Peschek

24, Oct, 2003 @10:10 AM

Article image
CD: Cypress Hill, Till Death Do Us Part


Dave Simpson

26, Mar, 2004 @3:23 AM

Article image
Elliott Smith reissue upsets fans
Forthcoming 'remastering' of late singer-songwriter's debut album provokes complaints for correcting mistakes of original

Sean Michaels

24, Mar, 2010 @10:36 AM

Article image
Elliott Smith dies, aged 34

US singer-songwriter Elliott Smith has died, in an apparent suicide.

Imogen Tilden

22, Oct, 2003 @2:35 PM

Article image
CD: The Best of Grandmaster Flash and Sugar Hill

(Sanctuary Records)

Adam Sweeting

04, Feb, 2005 @1:23 AM