A dead man haunts Elliott Smith’s new album, “From a Basement on the Hill.” The specter is of course Smith himself, the patented sadness in his voice resonating with a new, terminal intent. The album’s 15 songs span from soft acoustic lullabies to full-blown rock, perhaps serving as an appropriate — if untimely — endnote of the singer/songwriter’s career. While Smith became well known for the acoustic ballads of his early work, especially the Oscar-nominated “Miss Misery,” (from the “Good Will Hunting” soundtrack) his later albums featured more straight-ahead rock songs in the vein of the Beatles’ “Abbey Road.”
Posthumous albums should always be received with a certain amount of weariness. The release of “Basement” may remind some of Jeff Buckley’s ill-conceived “Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk,” released by his mother after his drowning, or even Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Soup.”
But Smith’s had completed the sessions that would become his last record, and conceived of them as a complete album, at the time of his suicide last fall. Money-hungry, musically illiterate family members do not enter into this equation.
What does enter is a couple of masterful tracks, and a handful of very good ones. Smith does not stray far from his established sound, yet the album is unique. The opening song, “Coast to Coast,” starts with the distant noises of a rehearsing orchestra, before electric guitars and drums launch into the familiar territory of “Figure 8.”
Perhaps the uniqueness of the album comes from the fact that Smith isn’t repeating old material, he is improving it. The bridge of “Coast to Coast” snaps into place early in the song, unexpected, yet perfectly timed.
Smith blends his styles beautifully in songs like “Pretty (Ugly Before),” in which an electric guitar is strummed without distortion as if it were an acoustic. The band plays softly, with great restraint, as Smith sings, “I feel pretty, I felt so ugly before, I didn’t know what to do,” with a sense of eerie irony.
Pain comes in the form of Smith’s tender falsetto during “Strung Out Again.” He sings softly, “I saw an evil emperor wearing my clothes far from the best, / they must treat you better than the rest, / just looking in mirror will make you a brave man.” What follows is a thrash of guitars that leads him to conclude, “I know how I begin and how I end, / strung out again.”
The album’s best song, by far, triumphs in its excess. Excess of emotion, excess of sound, excess of anger and of sadness grip even the casual listener. “King’s Crossing” comes in the middle of an album that is characterized by taut restraint, but here Smith explodes before restraining himself again. A low-fi recording of a piano romps in the beginning, as ghostly “ahhs” superimpose themselves on top of one another. Smith finally begins singing nearly two minutes into the song. Tension continues to build, still controlled, and a low bass enters as he sings, “I can’t prepare for death any more than I already have.”
The phenomenal chorus erupts, sounding like banshees sweeping the night. The terminal intent of his lyrics and voice are ever-present as he sings, “I took my own insides out,” and, “Don’t let me get carried away,” a reference to a stay at the hospital.
“A Distorted Reality is Now a Necessity To Be Free,” the album’s closer, takes a turn for the political. Smith takes what he does so well, singing about disappointment, and turns it on his country and its sad state.
Strewn across the album are a healthy collection of soft, solo guitar and voice ballads, reminiscent of “Miss Misery,” and even earlier lo-fi songs. They are on the one hand small jewels, and on the other they bog down the album, despite their individual beauty. With 15 songs total, a little more stringent selection on behalf of Smith’s family and friends, who compiled the final track list, would have made the album stronger.
And yet, the tender melodies of songs like “The Last Hour,” “Memory Lane,” and “Let’s Get Lost” ring with such utter resignation and shivering majesty that they amount to nothing other than a sad gravestone in a very bleak cemetery.