In March 2003, Elliott Smith gave what would turn out to be his last interview, to a small American magazine called Under The Radar. He hadn’t released a record for three years (since 2000’s ‘Figure 8’) and, in that time, dark tales about his condition had proliferated. Smith’s long-term battles with heroin addiction and alcoholism, and the severe depressive episodes which had led to him being incarcerated in a mental hospital, were reasonably well-known. Recently, though, he had struggled to even get through a gig without disintegrating.
In early 2003, NME witnessed a show in LA that amounted to an excruciating “hour of false starts and rambling”. “The whole spectacle’s so messy that you want to offer empathy,” the writer concluded, “but all you can do is watch. Uncomfortably.”
Under The Radar’s journalist repeated worse rumours, chiefly that Smith had been found out cold in an LA toilet, a needle hanging from his arm. But when the magazine visited the singer-songwriter at his home studio in the city, they were confronted by an unusually bright Smith. He had successfully passed through rehab, and was now grappling with a vast number of songs planned for his sixth solo album. Smith’s relationship with his label, Dreamworks, had become strained since the commercial failure of ‘Figure 8’, and they had come to an agreement that his next album, tentatively named ‘From A Basement On The Hill’, could be released on an indie label.
Consequently, Smith turned his back on the elaborate, Beatles-style chamber pop that had made ‘Figure 8’ and its predecessor, ‘XO’, such grand affairs. ‘From A Basement…’ promised at least a partial return to the raw style with which he had made his name on 1997’s ‘Either/Or’. Here, we would be reminded, was a singer-songwriter of ineffable delicacy and, even by the solipsistic extremes of the genre, unnerving emotional force. Smith could be tender and misanthropic, romantic and self-loathing, candid about his drug use and densely, poetically allusive. When these confessions were accompanied by such simple, beautiful tunes, their impact was incalculable: not least on other songwriters, from Badly Drawn Boy to Sufjan Stevens, who faithfully copied Smith’s tone, if not his morbid preoccupations.
Smith’s plans for ‘From A Basement…’ were more complex and ambitious, though. It was to be a double album where, he claimed, “the songs get weirder as they go along, and then, when you get near the end, you get to the really weird ones. They’re kind of more noisy with the pitch all distorted.”
Smith never quite finished the record. On October 21, 2003, his girlfriend Jennifer Chiba found him dead in their bathroom, stabbed through the heart. In spite of much grisly speculation about the tragedy, what had happened seemed clear enough: Smith may have been clean of drugs, but his depression was not so easily abandoned. He had done what he’d threatened for so long, and committed suicide.
Now, almost a year to the day since his death, ‘From A Basement On The Hill’ finally arrives. Overseen by his parents and pieced together by Rob Schnapf (who co-produced many of Smith’s earlier albums) and Joanna Bolme (an ex-girlfriend of the singer, currently employed as Steve Malkmus’ bassist), it’s not quite what Smith had envisaged. With 15 songs on one CD, the album is about half the length he’d planned, and never descends into noise, as originally conceived.
It does, though, begin with noise – a distant roar of ambient feedback that gradually solidifies into the clanging first track, ‘Coast To Coast’. With The Flaming Lips’ Steven Drozd (another recovering heroin user) one of two drummers on the song, the sound is undoubtedly more smudged and ragged than on Smith’s previous solo albums – it recalls, if anything, his early work fronting Heatmiser. But Smith’s uncanny ear for melody, for finding prettiness even when he’s writhing in despair, is still all too obvious. It’s a great start, and one which sets out the themes which run through the whole album: chronic self-doubt, poisonous sarcasm, a prevailing sense of having had enough of trying to fulfil other people’s expectations. “I’ve got no new act to amuse you… Anything that I could do/Will never be good enough for you” he sings, and even though his voice is as high and lulling as ever, the contempt is palpable.
For, while this is clearly not the record Smith intended to make, it’s still an immensely gripping and cohesive piece of work. For all his experiments with grungier rock and spectral acoustics, ‘From A Basement…’ holds together convincingly. It sounds like a completely finished album, and one which, remarkably, is a match for the very best in Smith’s catalogue.
The songs that stand out, perhaps inevitably, are the most unadorned, largely acoustic ones, where the brilliance of Smith’s craft is most apparent. On ‘A Fond Farewell’ and ‘Let’s Get Lost’ (the latter named after a song popularised by one of Smith’s heroes, the heroin-ravaged jazz singer and trumpeter Chet Baker), it’s clear that Smith deserves to be treated as the equal to such venerated melancholics as Nick Drake and Big Star’s Alex Chilton. In ‘A Fond Farewell’ he characterises himself, poignantly, as “A little less than a human being/A little less than a happy high/A little less than a suicide”.
‘From A Basement…’ is full of such terrible intimations, it will inevitably be read by some as an extended suicide note. “Give me one good reason not to do it”, he threatens desperately in ‘King’s Crossing’, a churning fantasia that betrays Smith’s love of George Harrison’s ‘All Things Must Pass’. At the song’s death, though, he’s pleading for redemption: “Don’t let me get carried away/Don’t let me be carried away”. Drug allusions abound, from the titles of ‘Strung Out Again’ and ‘Shooting Star’, to the waiting-for-the-man hymnal of ‘A Passing Feeling’.
Of course, it would’ve been easy to read the lyrics of every Smith album as a suicide note. Even on his 1994 solo debut, ‘Roman Candle’, the template is set: “I wanted her to tell me that she would never wake me” he repeats again and again on ‘Last Call’. And since some of the material on ‘From A Basement…’ dates from as early as 2000, it may be rash to draw a direct connection between the lyrical sentiments and Smith’s awful fate. The lovely chronicle of doubt and surrender that is ‘Pretty (Ugly Before)’ , for instance, was a staple of Smith’s live set from around the time of ‘Figure 8’, long before its release as a seven-inch single in August 2003 on the ghoulishly-named Suicide Squeeze label. Better, then, to see this as the last work of a permanently troubled, inordinately gifted songwriter – although, tantalisingly, there may well be another dozen or so finished songs still awaiting release.
Elliott Smith despised his reputation as a depressive icon, hated the fact that people were attracted to his music because of the grim assumptions they made about his life. “I don’t want to perpetuate the notion that if somebody plays music they must be fucked up or crazy,” he told NME in 2000. But the news that veteran director and scandal-monger Kenneth Anger is planning a movie about Smith’s death suggests that seedy myth currently has more cachet than musical genius.
In this context, ‘From A Basement On The Hill’ is a magnificent album, but it’s simultaneously a terrible kind of failure: a last testament which cements Smith’s reputation as a tormented, terminally unhappy figure, and which rarely shows the kindness and humour that was so fundamental to his personality away from the microphone. Death has ensured that, for all the praise his music will undoubtedly receive in the years to come, it is Smith’s unfortunate destiny to be saddled forever with a stereotype he abhorred: as a doomed, tragic hero.