Wednesday, November 10, 2004


Elliott's Smith new album, "From a Basement on the Hill," is a gorgeous suicide note from an immensely talented indie singer-songwriter. It's been a regular on Smartmom's office play list since its posthumous release two weeks ago.

Smith killed himself rather brutally over a year ago by sticking a knife into his chest. Known to be a very depressed guy, he had recently kicked a heroin habit after being addicted for years. There is some talk that the medication he was taking at the time may have played a part in his suicide. And there are those who question whether his death was really a suicide at all. The cause of his death, in all of its violence, is still hotly debated on fan websites.

As for the music, Smith is the real thing -- right up there with the greats in Smartmom's pantheon of richly emotive performers. Lyrically and musically, he swells, he sweats, he soars -- he's John Lennon on heroin. With Beatlesque harmonies, throbbing instrumentation, and spine tingling melodies, the songs are lyrical odes to addiction, the search for love, the longing to disappear.

"Burning every bridge that I cross to find some beautiful place to get lost," Smith sings on "Let's Get Lost, the new album's second cut, which pulls you into the album and sticks to you like taffy. Smith was working on this breathtaking album at the time of his death. It's hard to imagine someone wanting to die while creating such a masterpiece. He was, if you will, at the top of his game. But these are not just well-crafted songs, they are also honest expressions of a deeply sensitive, obviously tortured soul. The fact that in his state of mind he was able to lay down these tracks is simply amazing. He had to live it, we just get to listen. And for that: infinite gratitude.

It's tempting to look for clues to Smith's tragic death on this album. But boy is it hard to read his lousy handwriting in the accompanying lyric book. Yes, "From a Basement on the Hill," is full of expressions of sorrow and pain -- it's positively pregnant with suicidal ambition. But all his albums were like that. Strangely, this one is not such a downer and it's not particuarly morbid either. Okay, okay - maybe it is a touch moody, Smartmom will give you that. But she just loves depressing music. And she just loves "From a Basement on the Hill."

Now that Smith is dead, he has of course entered the coveted realm of famous dead artists. Dying young at the height of your talents is a sure way to reach superstardom. There must be a bar in heaven where where all those dead luminaries hang out, smoke cigarettes (smoking is allowed in the bars in heaven) and drink Courvoisier.

Can't you just see it: Janis Joplin, John Lennon, Gram Parsons and Nick Drake sitting around singing Elliott Smith songs. Hendrix noodling away on an electric guitar, Brian Jones at the upright piano while Patsy Cline sings back-up and Spalding Gray hits a tambourine. "Sunshine been keeping me up for days. There is no nighttime it's only a passing phase," the singers sing like a choir of angels, "I feel pretty, pretty enough for you, I felt so ugly before didn't know what to do.

But even if he hadn't died, this album would still be a keeper. It makes you wish you could have helped him when he was "Floating in a black balloon, in a long shadow in the afternoon, my mama told me stay clean, there is no in between. But all you ladies and gentlemen, in between's the only place I been."

Wish we coulda been there to say: Hang in there, Elliott, everything's gonna be alright.


At 7:05 PM, Blogger mamainwaiting said...

nice piece. You forgot about Kurt Cobain, Brian Wilson, Cass Elliott, Otis Redding. Hey the list is long. I'm looking forward to listening to the CD. I've heard bits and pieces at your office and in a restaurant. Thanks for the review and your thoughts.

At 9:56 PM, Blogger Udge said...

Brian Wilson is dead? The people who've bought tickets for his world tour are gonna be pissed :-)

At 9:39 AM, Blogger Udge said...

Have you seen the review/obit in the Nov.1 New Yorker? Very sympathetic. I'll try to listen to the album over Christmas (when I'm on your side of the Atlantic).

At 6:03 AM, Blogger Third Street said...

Christmas in America? Glad you'll be checking out Elliott Smith -- by then it should be in constant play in all cafes in Williamsburg. There's a great piece about Smith and his fans in "The Believer" (Dave Eggars lit magazine, special music issue).


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