Since the release of “Figure Eight,” die-hard Elliott Smith fans such as myself have been waiting with bated breath for the somber tunesmith’s next move. Last year the “Pretty Ugly Before b/w A Distorted Reality Is Now A Necessity To Be Free” single gave us a taste of his new direction, and we liked the flavor a lot. News came out that there would be a double album to look forward to in the near future.
Flash forward a year and Smith’s dead, the album’s been delayed and cut down to one disc and you still have had nothing to satisfy your jones for the new album except bad quality bootlegs and that one single, which I hope you kept mint since it’s worth about 50 bucks now.
Well, this week you have reason to rejoice for a golden aural elixir is traveling to your ears faster than you can say “Strung Out Again.” Thanks to the miracle of illegal file sharing, I’ve been spending the past two weeks listening to “From a Basement on the Hill” over and over again.
If you’re expecting anything similar to any of his other albums, you’re in for a shock. Sure, there’s lots of familiar elements like references to the white lady – this album boasts some of the funniest and cleverest yet, for example “It’s Christmastime, and the needle’s on the tree/ Skinny Santa’s bringing something for me” – but the album as a whole is unlike anything Smith, or anyone else, has put out before.
Co-mingling with the trademark acoustic numbers – now more haunting and sadly beautiful than ever – are songs that can only be described as rock ballads. Tracks like “Don’t Go Down” and “King’s Crossing,” which I had become used to hearing as a badly recorded live song (by an obviously drunk Smith), gained soaring guitar that piles Lennon-esque riffs and breaks on in copious quantities, only to smash them apart with a guitar solo that’s almost metal sounding.
Smith’s guitar craft has improved by a huge amount since “Figure Eight,” and he is able to flex these muscles without having them be overshadowed by his songwriting. Speaking of that, the poetry of this album is second to none, easily surpassing any other record I’ve heard this year, and cementing Smith’s place as the premier songwriter of our generation.
Tear-jerking and beautiful lyrics like “open your parachute/ grab your gun/ fall down like an omen/ a setting sun,” will satisfy anyone weaned on earlier Smith, and probably draw in new fans as well.
The record almost sounds like a Beatles album in places, seeing Smith experiment with synthesizers and obscure keyboards. I know people don’t think of wailing guitar when they think of Smith, but there’s string bending aplenty here. A la Quasi, he even threw in a track of bird noises chirping entitled “Ostriches and Chirping.”
But what makes this album truly shine is the flawless synthesis of lyric and music of Smith’s influences and his own experimentation and the sound of his life over the past few years. I’ve missed hearing about it.
Hearing it has caused me to redefine what a good album should be. It truly did blow my mind, leaving me speechless and grinning like an idiot at my friends for 14 tracks. Maybe I’m just infatuated with it right now but I doubt its value will diminish with overplay.
This album is my “Sgt. Pepper,” my “Nevermind” my “The Queen Is Dead.” It’s a masterwork and a fitting swan song for an incomparable artist and poet.