Saturday, 10 January 2009

Album Review: From a Basement on the Hill

I'm a huge Elliott Smith fan. This is a moderately recent thing, I was sent my first album of his back in July, and I wasn't hooked instantly, but after a while and acquiring two more of his albums (the mediocre Figure 8 and the sublime Either/Or) it really began to sink in how great this guy is. Never before had I discovered a musician that just openly lays his emotions out on the table for all to see, again and again, without reguarding who's listening. Reading up on him and how he never reads reviews of his music because it might change the way he writes just made me admire him that much more. He's an artist that cares for his work and makes it his own, which makes me respect even his most mediocre work because it wasn't made for anyone but himself. He was just sharing it with us.

So then, after reading up about Elliott Smith in depth since the months I first got XO, about his life, his death, and yearning for more than the 3 albums of his I already had, I acquired "From a Basement on the Hill". I'd heard some tracks before I got it, such as "Twlight", and from what I'd heard, I expected it to be great, better than Figure 8 and perhaps on par with XO, but not being able to quite match the masterpiece that is Either/Or. Boy was I fuckin' wrong.

There's so many contradicting words I could use to describe this album. It's the same old Smith we all know and love, yet it's a step in a completely new and more experimental direction. Bittersweet, yet completely tragic. Tough, textured, in your face, but yet more fragile and broken than any of his previous efforts. Unfinished, yet his most complete and down right brilliant album by a large margin.

About half way through listening to the incredible opener (though that's not saying much because every single opener of his are amazing, except the opener to his self titled album) "Coast to Coast", approximately at the line "I belong in the zoo", I was already thinking "Ok, maybe this could be better than Either/Or afterall". It was immediately refreshing, hearing the sound of Smith putting his larger budget and creative opportunities he's had since XO to perfect use, being more creative and experimental than past efforts. The beginning is brilliant; you hear an eery orchestra that sounds like it's either far away or in another room, and after 15 seconds or so, you hear a sound, like a slight muted strum on an electric guitar. You know something's there, something's coming, then BOOM, the song starts, and ends with poetry being said in both channels over a piano. It's a brilliant way to start an album and did things Smith had never really tried.

The album then shifts into a more "traditional" Smith song, (i.e, him solo with an acoustic guitar) "Let's get Lost". In the song, he longs to get away from where is now, to "burn every bridge" that he crosses. It's sad, yet sweet, and it's got that essence of hope and of there being a light at the end of the tunnel.

The same general theme is still there in the scarily tragic "King's Crossing", though it is more in the style of "Coast to Coast", even feeling like it starts where it left off, with multiple speaking in the 2 different channels. The difference between this and "Let's get Lost" (though not to imply that the two songs are very similar at all) is that in this, there is no light, no spark, at the end of the tunnel. He's looking for it, he's asking for it near the end of the song with "gimme one good reason not to do it". He needs a reason to not lose all hope, and it's not there. This song in particular is probably the lyrical highlight of the whole album, with such great lines as "I took my own insides out. It don't matter 'cos I have no sex life; all I wanna do now is inject my ex wife" and "I don't care if I fuck up, I'm going on a date with a rich white lady. Ain't life great?" that are hilariously tragic in their own right.

One of the best things about this album is, despite it being unfinished, it feels like an album rather than a collection of songs, which every other one of his other albums to date have suffered from, reguardless of how good the individual songs are. Things such as "Ostriches and Chirping", which serves as an intro the stunningly good "Twilight", are things that haven't been present on previous albums that are warmly welcomed, along with other new additions such as having a song over six minutes. I'm also aware that Smith didn't make Ostriches, and probably wouldn't have included it on the album if he was alive, but hell, it definitely 100% works.

Some songs of the album are reminiscent of his lo fi work on his first three albums, though sometimes putting even Either/Or to shame. The song memory lane, a personal highlight, is probably the catchiest of all the songs on the album, with Elliott's excellent acoustic playing and great lyrics. It's a song where I don't have a lot to say about it, but I love it reguardless and it holds my personal, prestigious award of "most fun song to play on acoustic guitar". Songs like "Last Hour" are also beautiful, and amazingly bare and lo fi. It sounds like it came from the days of recording onto a four track on his basement *doesn't make pun*, and is brilliant (though obviously not because of this).

Then there are just the songs that hit you out of nowhere and leave you wondering "Wow, is this Elliott Smith I'm hearing?". "Shooting Star" comes to mind, with an intro that's so completely mind numbingly awesome and yet so unlike Smith it just makes you smile. Truly a dive into the experimental for him.

The album's filled with musical pieces of self expression that can get you pretty hard if you listen at the right time, but none other gets me more than "A Distorted Reality is now a Necessity to be Free". Just look at the title to know exactly what he was feeling. It's brilliant, angry, disappointed, and in need of help. The thing about this's's the best ending to an album ever. After all the voice overlays are singing, "ahhhhh"ing, and they all fade out one by one, leaving you only with a quiet "mmmmhh.." as his voice breaks off, and the piano and guitar quietly play until they fade out. It's perfect. Smith always ends his albums in a way that lack closure, reguardless of if the song is great ("Say Yes" (Either/Or) and "I Didn't Understand" come to mind). But this? Wow. It makes me want to sit in silence for minutes, doing nothing. It makes me wish more than anything that he wasn't dead, all because of that "mmmh". It's the most beautiful thing on record.

To conclude; the album is certainly not perfect. "Don't go Down" is definitely not even nearly up to par to the rest of the album, and songs like "Pretty (Ugly Before)" are definitely good, but by no means particularly memorable or even appropriate for the album (it wasn't even intended for it). The main criticism would have to be how, though I wouldn't know this, the songs might not resonate nearly as much if you are not that familiar with Smith. However, that's about all the criticism I can chalk up, and I'm really thinking of what I can criticise, too. It's not as impressive as Kid A when analysed (not even nearly), but as a personal and most definitely temporary opinion, I prefer it. Yeah, I'd be happy to say it's my favourite album, probably because I've listened to my other contenders dry, but also because it does what no other album does for me; makes me feel really emotional while not reminding myself that I exist. The only thing I can think when listening to this stuff is him, and only him, and I don't relate it to a situation in my life to feel something, which is pretty amazing.

Please, if you're not an Elliott Smith fan, don't get this album. Get Either/Or, XO, Figure 8 etc first. Then, once he's sunk in, once you're a fan and know enough about him, get this album and listen to it in the dark, with headphones, with your eyes shut, lying in bed. It's an experience.


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