Wednesday, September 22, 2004


Elliott Smith
From A Basement On A Hill

How does one critique the dead? Is it fair for a writer to comment on an artist's work after he is no longer around to defend it?

I am sitting in a cafe listening to Elliott Smith's first posthumous release, From A Basement On A Hill, and I am trying to separate the tragedy of Elliott Smith from the musician Elliott Smith. I remember the day I heard he had killed himself. I can't say I was surprised.

I received the farewell album over a month ago and I avoided it for quite a while. I didn't listen to the record because I was afraid it would disappoint and taint my appreciation for the late Smith. Like breaking up with someone amicably, instead of an ugly fight leaving a bad after-taste. My friend Barry won't listen to the new album. He says it would be too painful. While I've accused him of being too dramatic, Barry explains that Smith's emotional outpourings were the soundtrack to his confusing high school years. He saw Smith perform in the intimate, now closed, Brownies in New York. He said it was one of the most brilliant performances he has ever seen.

The first time I saw Smith, I was quite literally speechless. The disheveled folk singer with a bad complexion shuffled humbly out on stage and sat down on a worn-out love seat and played an hour of his heart-piercing acoustic confessionals. Everyone knew that his long sleeved shirt in the summer meant that he was inevitably covering the marks on his arm from frequent drug use. Truthfully, I felt uncomfortable observing a performance so intimate and personal. But I had an uncanny feeling that Smith felt just as uneasy, if not more.

And now I am conflicted about the new album. On the one hand, I feel betrayed by Smith just as I was disappointed in Kurt Cobain for opting out. His Shakespearean suicide with a knife to the chest proves to me just how tormented Smith was inside. And with lyrics like “I'm through trying now/it's a big relief” and “Bye bye/it's now black and white…this is not my life/it's just a fond farewell…” I am left wondering how those around him did not notice that suffering. His loved ones say that, toward the end of his days, Smith sounded happy and at peace with himself. In my opinion, that's revisionism. After repeated listens of From A Basement on a Hill, I have digested it and now I, too, am depressed. I can't help but consider that the inconsistent quality of the songs (some are great and some are…not) is due to the fact that Smith had a great deal more on his mind than making a crowd-pleasing release. I would much rather celebrate the records (if you can use the word 'celebrate' in connection to Smith's work) that were released when he was alive, like the invaluable either/or, when he was the creative force behind his songs, as opposed to his family or local band members familiar with his aesthetic. Right now, the new album just feels like an séance, listening to a haunting ghost communicate its misery from the afterlife and I really can't imagine being eager to experience that again.


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