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ISSUE 118 VOL 8 PUBLISHED 11/12/2004

Smith's 'Hill' impresses, saddens

By Brenna Greenfield
Staff Writer

Friday, November 12, 2004

Elliott Smith was a closet genius, an artist distressed by developing the cult following that he did. His posthumous work, From a Basement on the Hill, is a more guitar-driven continuation of his previous works. With its release, Smith offers up one final sacrifice to the music gods, a beautiful album which is necessarily tainted by recollection of his untimely death.

Smith began his career as a member of the punk quartet Heatmiser, but gained recognition as a solo artist with his 1994 release Roman Candle.

He acquired some mainstream familiarity with an Oscar nomination for his song Miss Misery, which appeared in Good Will Hunting. After the release of Figure 8 in 2000, Smith kept a low profile and began working on his sixth solo record.

On Oct. 21, 2003, Smith was found dead in his Los Angeles apartment with two stab wounds in his chest. His death was ruled a suicide, though recent evidence suggests otherwise.

On Oct. 19, 2004, the album Smith had nearly completed at the time of his death, was released. The result is a disc which Smith described in the March 23, 2003, edition of Under the Radar as, a pretty big departure. The songs all sound pretty different from each other. The lyrics are far less impressionistic; plus, the production sounds unlike the last two records.

The melancholy songs on From a Basement on the Hill speak of heartache and broken relationships. Smith addresses a failed love, so bad, so far, your love is sad shooting star.

Another song mocks, youre distant and cold, a sight to behold/everybody just sighs/nobody gets on with you very long. Other lyrics lament a flawed opportunity: I could make you smile if you stayed awhile, but Im already somebodys baby.

Sadness and intense isolation pervade the entire album. In almost every song, things have fallen apart and progress seems impossible: burning every bridge I cross/to find a beautiful place to get lost.

This sadness is a by-product of Smiths music. His soft, haunting voice hangs onto notes while his acoustic guitar twitches and pulls him along through each lullaby-like song.

Lines like, havent laughed this hard in a long time/better stop now before I start crying/go off to sleep in the sunshine sound fairly optimistic on paper, but when Smith sings them, they become inexplicably tragic.

Smith struggled with drug addiction throughout his life, and there are plenty of thinly veiled references to the topic in From a Basement on the Hill. In Strung Out Again he sings, I know how I begin and how Ill end/strung out again. In A Fond Farewell he says, I can deal with some psychic pain/if itll slow down my higher brain/veins full of disappearing ink/vomiting in the kitchen sink.

When Ben Folds played at St. Olaf for Fall Concert, he included a tribute to Smith in his set. In the August 2004 edition of Creem Online, Folds said: It's kind of like passing that dude at work who works at the copy machine every day, and then he's dead. I didn't know him all that well, I passed him, it's sad, and also I think he was a bit of a genius.

Smiths genius lay in his ability to perfectly capture the essence of an ache, to swathe it in smooth, lilting melodies with his soft, fragile voice. He was a great artist, one whom the general public failed to appreciate because he did not produce easily palatable music.

But the difficulty and hardship evident in his work make his songs all the more beautiful. From a Basement on the Hill is a must not only because it is Smiths last effort, but also because it is his best work since 1997s Either/Or. A year after the loss of a vulnerable, sad artist, no action seems more appropriate than to honor him by appreciating the one thing which will continue to define who he was  his music.

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