Every Elliott Smith fan will hear From A Basement On The Hill for the first time under their own circumstances. The album drops two days before the one-year anniversary of his death, and an informal poll shows that solitude and drinking are two popular elements in their plans. I chose headphones + the sidewalks of an interminably autumnal Chicago + an all-day hangover + romantic entanglements gone snarly for mine. I walk around and listen to half the record and I do what I do to every Elliott Smith record since Elliott Smith, which is be disappointed by it.
"I think what people don't allow bands to do is change," Jason Black from Hot Water Music told me in an interview a couple of weeks ago. "I'm not even saying change as a band, but as people." It's a trait I hate to see in myself, but I do. When you have someone whose songs gather meaning with every repeat listen, with every memorizedlyric, you don't want them to change. Sometimes there's someone that makes songs like that, and you love them in a passionate and meaningful way that you usually only see in teenagers latching onto the music that will define them for the next couple of years or the rest of their life. It's because of how much the music means to them, because of its potential to effect the rest of their lives, that teenagers are always the first to yell "Sellout!" at any artist's new album.
So I listen to songs where baroque arrangements and intricate pop sensibility are replaced by guitars that crash and swoon, hooks that swing wild and direct, production ideas that sounded like an artistic indulgence on "Happiness" turned into overall album-spanning concepts. I listen to half the record, then fall in with a bunch of drinkers. I put it on pause.
The next day I wake up and pick up where I left off. I skip track 8, "Ostriches & Chirping", which is actually just a track of ostrich sounds and chirpings, and I get "Twilight". Every Elliott Smith album has the opening song that's overarching and huge and sets the album's tone and theme, and there's the grand closing number, and somewhere in the middle there's the song that's the one that you put on when you come home drunk and alone or suddenly sober and not alone, the one that is your own personal jam, where criticism falls by the wayside and nothing exists but you and him. The Elliott Smith you don't want changed: the sad and confused troubadour talking just to you, telling you that how sad you feel is exactly how sad you should feel, that he's there being torn up and romantic just like you are forever and ever, whenever you need him there to do that for you. The guitar that sounds simpler than it is, the melody that's simpler than it seems, the late-night-phone-call vocals, lyrics that don't fuck around in making tragic mountains out of tiny dramas. Elliott Smith at his most archetypal. Suddenly the record makes sense. I think of people that I've seen drunk and crying in public, the moment that emotion overwhelms sense and they just have to let it out in its rawest and most desperate, scariest form. From A Basement On A Hill sounds, more than any of his albums, like the work of a man that has to, has to, make this music and say these words or else...or else what?
We all know how the story ends. Tragic poet in life, tragic poet in death, knife in the heart, dying in just the exact way that we feared and secretly (even to ourselves) hoped that he would. From A Basement isn't his last gift to us. It isn't the last, belated line to a suicide letter. It's not a closing chapter or a portrait of Icarus just above the waves. "Don't go down," he says in track 4. "Stay with me / baby, stay." If anything it's the scribbled poetry of someone who's risen and sunk again and again, only to find himself finally on solid ground and, as shaky as it is, determined to stay on it for however long he can.
I spend the next couple of days in front of my computer letting the songs sweep me away again and again. There was a man once who invited the twenty or so people that showed up for his concert onto the stage to sit with him. He sat at the bar and smoked Camel Lights with me for hours and showed up the next morning, eager and stunned by the morning sun and ultimately vunerable, at the coffee shop where I worked to get the free breakfast I promised him. "This is not my life." Track 6, "Fond Farewell". "It's just a fond farewell to a friend".