By Mark Guarino
When Elliott Smith died a year ago this month at age 34, he became a member of a club of sensitive young men who die early deaths, a confirmation for fans who insist there must be a price waiting to be paid for writing such sad songs.
Joining the club does not necessarily mean ending a career. Thirty years after obscure British folk singer Nick Drake died of an overdose of antidepressants at age 26, his music is flourishing in reissues and on car commercials. Even though Jeff Buckley made a single album before vanishing into the Mississippi River at age 30, there are continued demos and outtakes to be mined. Kurt Cobain, the club’s most famous member, continues his return. Last year, a new song hit the charts nine after his suicide at age 27. Next month, a Nirvana box set will include more. Layne Stanley of Alice in Chains, British singer-songwriter Matthew Jay, alt.country forefather Gram Parsons and others all await the same treatment.
“From a Basement on the Hill” (Anti-), in stores Tuesday, is Smith’s first posthumous release, an album he was working on up until his death of knife punctures to the chest. His death remains circumspect — the coroner could not conclude whether he fell to suicide or murder, a mystery that will no doubt contribute to the mythology that typically spirals around high profile deaths.
It fits that even his death is a mixed message. Like the others who burned out before their time, Smith wrote songs lined with an unbearable frailty. For most people, his public image was inseparable from the 1998 Oscars telecast where, standing alone in a white suit, he performed his crossover contender “Miss Misery,” from the 1997 film “Good Will Hunting.” He looked uncomfortable and didn’t win (Celine Dion did), which made sense. Smith’s music was privately wrought and connected largely to a small, devoted audience in the underground rock world. If there was someone who wasn’t wired for acceptance speeches, he was it.
But for a songwriter who looked like he might crumble at a moment’s notice, his music did not rely on monstrous guitars, like Cobain’s, or nakedly bleak folk instrumentation, like Drake’s. Smith was primarily schooled in the Beatles and his six albums were ripe with layered production, sweet pop melodies and his voice, typically multi-tracked to sound especially intimate, had in it shades of George Harrison. Starting in 1994 with his album “Roman Candle” (Cavity Search) and continuing to “XO” and “Figure 8,” his two albums on the major label Dreamworks, Smith connected to his audience in a way not many songwriters are able. Through upbeat, simple, singsong melodies and lush instrumentation, he made deeply private feelings and a profound melancholia not just accessible but romantic, cathartic and universal.
“Basement” delivers the sense that Smith’s last days were not good ones. The 14 songs hint at the lure of drugs and suicide in his life, the despair and anger that comes from knotted romance and the feeling that he struggled inside a hazy limbo between reality and his ultimate oblivion. Some sentiments are painfully direct — “The last hour/I’m through trying now/it’s a big relief” (“Last Hour”) — while others are channeled through abstract images that tease and provoke. “You’re a parliament of owls/flying over a city of canals,” he sings (“Strung Out Again”). “There goes the floating body/floating face down/you get what you see.”
The songs were given finishing touches by producer Rob Schnapf with musicians that include Steven Drodz of the Flaming Lips and Sam Coomes of Quasi and Heatmiser, the Portland punk band he and Smith formed in the early ‘90s.
Only a fraction of the album sounds reconstructed — the brash guitar and drums of “Shooting Stars” — the album’s biggest rock moment — don’t match Smith’s fading vocals that sound lifted from a demo.
This is not a fragmented collection just to provide closure, however. The songs on “Basement” are among Smith’s finest. It is easy to get lost inside the bustling jangle of guitars of “Coast to Coast” that spring out of the 40 seconds of moaning machinery that open the album. Smith’s simple melodies balance sweet, tiny moments, from the elementary piano and guitars on “Pretty (Ugly Before),” the humming interlude on “Don’t Go Down” to the duet between himself and his shadow vocal on “Twilight.” They are lures to the destruction of his lyrics that blur with psychedelic images of drug seduction. “It’s Christmas time/and the needles on the tree/a skinny Santa is bringing something to me…give me one good reason not to do it,” he sings (“King’s Crossing”).
Smith is amused at it all, charming us with his tunefulness, wit and the warmth of his ragtag production that sounds like it could fall apart at any moment. In the meantime, it hangs together with delicate splendor. For Smith, these songs were escapes from inner torment and, for us, they are just as utilitarian. “I’ll burn every bridge that I cross/to find some beautiful place to get lost” (“Let’s Get Lost”), he promises and, on his final album, there are many such rest stops along the way.