After I had got over the initial disappointment that it wasn’t Robbie Williams who had committed suicide [I’m kidding], I was sad to hear of Robin Williams’ passing this week. It seems to me that there are, increasingly, two ways that the general public react to the death of a celebrity: they are either catty and ultra-critical, especially if the death was in some way self-inflicted [see Peaches Geldof], or they canonise the person immediately, almost to the point of idolatry [Princess Diana]. I find all that weird. Death has always been a hot-topic, I guess, but it makes me uncomfortable how everyone has to have an opinion on it, has to pass judgement one way or the other, usually over social media. But, then, the problem with our current culture is how certain everyone is of how important and necessary their opinions are. Me? I don’t have anything to say, really; I’m not a fan of the man’s films, but that is irrelevant anyway. All there is to say is that it is sad, it is sad when anyone dies, there isn’t a hierarchy based on people’s achievements. And it’s a shame, too, that he felt he had to get out, that he made it to the age of 63 and yet still felt as though life was intolerable, that another minute, another moment, was a minute and moment too many.
The suicide of Elliott Smith casts a large shadow over this record. It is impossible to review it without touching on the subject, as much as I would like to. I remember the moment I found out that he had done it, and, in particular, how unsurprising it was, how inevitable it had always seemed. I knew then, and know now, next to nothing about the man himself, but his records, even prior to this: his last, were all intensely sad. Whenever I listened to them I felt as though he was incredibly lost and searching for something, some meaning or relief or purpose, and, well, I guess in the end he found it. Or maybe I simply felt lost myself and projected that feeling, as we all do, onto someone else. I don’t know. What I do know is that From a Basement on the Hill terrifies me. Oh, not in the way that you might expect; it doesn’t sound horrible, in fact it is [mostly] exceedingly pretty, but it scares me nonetheless, because there’s very little doubt that Smith had already made up his mind. It is as though, to return to the example from my opening paragraph, Robin Williams had gone on stage prior to his suicide and done a 60 minute stand-up set all about how he was resolved to die.
So, I find it tough to review an album when I don’t even know how to listen to it. I feel, to some extent, as though I am peeping into something that I have no right to, except that Smith was, by all accounts, intending to release these songs himself. He didn’t get a chance to, of course, and so his estate compiled and released them posthumously, but that means that one cannot say with certainty that he would have released it, regardless of his intentions while recording it. However, these are not demos, they are professionally recorded, so my guilt, my uneasiness, is, perhaps, unwarranted. Still, listening to From a Basement on the Hill is hard-work. If you don’t find it so, then I worry about you.
The first words on the album are Last stop for a resolution/End of the line and while it could be argued that he isn’t singing about suicide on this occasion, that the song is about a relationship or his dissatisfaction with the music industry, it is still an unnerving start, knowing what we know. The second song, Let’s Get Lost, is one of the loveliest on the album; it’s a White Album-like, acoustic ballad; Smith’s guitar-playing, which I have always thought underrated, chimes like little bells. It would be easy to get caught up in the melodiousness of it, except that the vocal sounds oddly strained. Smith always had a whispered singing style, but here he seems tired, done in, worn out, unwell even, so that rather than fun I find the song disconcerting. The lyrics, again, don’t help:
Well I don’t know where I’ll go now
And I don’t really care who follows me there
But I’ll burn every bridge that I cross
And find some beautiful place to get lost
The centrepieces of the album [sequentially and in terms of their importance and power] are, for me, two songs that are unambiguously, at least in part, about ending it all. I don’t know who sequenced the record, but I’m unsure as to whether it is a blessing or not that the two songs follow each other in the track list. The first is A Fond Farewell, which is another plaintive Lennon-esque acoustic ballad. Even more so than Let’s Get Lost the dichotomy between the lyrics and the pretty melody is unnerving, it creates a strange kind of tension as though Smith was trying, and failing, to put an upbeat spin on things. Indeed, there is no upbeat spin you can put on lines like:
A little less than a human being
A little less than a happy high
A little less than a suicide
The only things that you really tried
This is not my life
It’s just a fond farewell to a friend
King’s Crossing is even worse. Here, there is no attempt made to make the lyrics palatable by wrapping them around a sweet melody. The Beatles are less of a reference point this time; the song, and the vocal, has the wobbly, teetering-on-the-edge quality of Alex Chilton, the singer/songwriter from Big Star, whose album Sister Lovers is a clear antecedent of this one. Lyrically there isn’t a lot to say, for the words speak for themselves:
I can’t prepare for death any more than I already have
If one was to try and view the album objectively, and compare it to the rest of his output, then it is not Smith’s best, or it certainly isn’t my favourite. Either/Or feels like a more unified statement to me, and his eponymous debut is more intimate and less in thrall to its influences. Indeed, late in his career Smith had, in my opinion, taken his Beatles obsession too far; the electric guitar lines on A Fond Farewell, for example, ape George Harrison rather than use him as a starting point. Having said that, it’s not his worst record either, is the equal of Figure 8 and better than XO [which appears to have many supporters but which is not one I rate very highly].