Striking revelation in epics, vignettes Elliott Smith's posthumous album scores 4 stars.
Source: Los Angeles Times
"From a Basement on the Hill" (Anti-)
The title of the venerated singer-songwriter's posthumous album pairs contrasting perspectives — the image of the basement suggests digging below the surface, while the hill evokes the idea of taking in a wide view.
Both viewpoints are in force on the album, with some songs penetrating deep into a character's private psychology and others observing emotional activity from a more detached, narrative vantage point.
The album, which Smith had finished recording but hadn't mixed or sequenced, comes out Oct. 19, almost a year to the day after he died of a knife wound in his Los Angeles apartment. For someone who enjoyed an unusually intense bond with his audience, that's not nearly long enough for his presence to fade, and his lingering memory will probably color the way many listeners hear some of the album's especially revealing lines.
But in its ramshackle glory and musical wanderlust, "Basement" reaches far beyond the cult that coalesced around Smith during his decade-long evolution from isolated confessional auteur to one of the most widely admired troubadours of his generation.
Smith, who started in punk rock, chafed under that stereotype, and "Basement" — conceived as an independent release during a temporary break from his DreamWorks/Interscope contract — served as a revitalizing break from the normal career cycle.
Freed from the more formal sound and circumstances of his previous work, Smith indulged without being indulgent, and the revelation here is the exuberant, instinctive, playful and daring sonic pilot who was hidden inside the meticulous craftsman of such albums as "XO" and "Figure 8."
Time after time, Smith drops his poignant, enticing melodies into musical maelstroms fashioned from fuzzed and distorted guitars, clattering rhythms and layers of sounds ranging from keyboards and string arrangements to chattering voices to the chirps of birds and crickets.
These bracing, unruly epics are balanced by more gentle, intimate reveries, but no matter where you go, the thematic terrain is pure Smith, following the music's swings from euphoria to despair. Smith is unmatched at capturing the futility of a life dogged by toxic relationships and detox clinics, a life whose promises of solace evaporate like phantoms.
Even though his singing is freer and more forward than ever, its plangent timbre always carries at least a trace of pain. By the end, you know what it's like to feel everything so intensely that it just hurts too much.
— Richard Cromelin