In a way it's fitting that the circumstances surrounding Elliott Smith's death are still murky a year after the singer-songwriter was discovered with a knife quite literally in his heart. With his long face and gaunt appearance, Smith seemed born to play the part of a poet of misery and loneliness, though his talent for expressing ambiguity may have been overlooked.
"From a Basement on the Hill" is the album Smith had nearly completed at the time of his death, and it's hard to disentangle the man from his work -- not just because his songs are so personal, but because so many of them are spookily prescient.
In "Everybody Cares, Everybody Understands," a song on his 1998 commercial breakthrough album "XO," Smith warned people concerned about his struggles with drugs and alcohol to "stay the hell away from things you know nothing about." On this new album, a less prickly Smith laments a life he's let get away from him, one marked by "veins full of disappearing ink" and "vomiting in the kitchen sink." In another song, "King's Crossing," Smith seems to foresee "instruments shine on a silver tray" and adds a note of dark comedy: "Don't let me get carried away."
Anyone who remembers Smith wearing an ill-fitting suit and flashing an amused grin on the 1998 Academy Awards broadcast as he performed "Miss Misery," his contribution to the "Good Will Hunting" soundtrack (inevitably, he lost to Celine Dion's "Titanic" theme), will be familiar with the light touches he employed to make such grim subject matter palatable on "From a Basement on the Hill." A fondness for waltz time, delicate guitar picking and lilting melodies are as characteristic of Smith's work as lyrics about longing, hope and disappointment.
"Let's Get Lost" cribs a title from the similarly doomed jazz musician Chet Baker, with Smith looking for a "beautiful place" to get crossed off everybody's list. The similarity between Smith and Baker's delicate voices gets eerier when you remember that there's still some question whether Baker himself was a suicide.
Rob Schnapf and Joanna Bolme, the longtime friends of Smith who finished "From a Basement on the Hill," have been adamant in interviews that they only mixed and sequenced the album, adding no instrumental parts that the late musician hadn't played or arranged for others. Many of the songs are constructed around Smith playing acoustic guitar and singing, but some, such as "A Passing Feeling," are downright epic, with crashing cymbals and psychedelic guitars -- appropriate for a guy who was always upfront about the Beatles being his musical idols.
Sometimes on "Basement," Smith seems downright unrepentant, even making a druggy double-entendre about having "a date with a rich white lady." At others he sounds as if he's cautioning anyone who finds his downward spiral glamorous. "Those drugs you got won't make you feel better," he sings in "Twilight." "Pretty soon you'll find it's the only little part of your life you're keeping together."
It's a bit of an understatement to say that for Elliott Smith, who was never terribly comfortable in his own skin, keeping his life together was not a strong suit. But maybe before he died, Smith had simply figured out a way to disappear completely -- into the dark ambiguity of songs in which he could be narrator and subject, or maybe neither. All we have to remember him by are his songs, and like the man himself they're not talking, and are darn near irresistible to try to figure out.