Nine months after Elliott Smith's death, his final album is being prepared for an October release.
From a Basement on the Hill is slated for an October 19 release on Anti- Records, nearly a year to the day after Smith’s death. The singer had almost completed the album before he died from knife wounds suffered in his Los Angeles apartment on October 21 (see "Singer/Songwriter Elliott Smith Dead; Friends, Fellow Musicians Pay Tribute"). Although initial speculation pointed toward suicide, the circumstances of his death are the subject of an ongoing investigation.
The album was assembled by Smith's longtime producer, Rob Schnapf, and Joanna Bolme, Smith's onetime girlfriend and current bassist for Stephen Malkmus' band, the Jicks, who worked on his 1997 breakthrough album, Either/Or. Smith's family commissioned the pair to help finish the album, which Smith had recorded over the course of three years.
Using a combination of detective work, instinct and notes and demos Smith left behind, Schnapf and Bolme carefully steered the album in the direction they believed Smith intended.
Originally conceived as a double album, the final version of From a Basement on a Hill has been pared down to 15 tracks that run the gamut of Smith's musical styles.
Lyrically, the subject matter is less impressionistic than Smith's previous album, Figure 8, and more direct and confessional about his tumultuous life and drug abuse. "Shooting Star" and "Fond Farewell" all contain allusions to his troubled final years. ("The cold comfort of the in-between/ A little less than a human being/ A little less than a happy high/ A little less than a suicide" — "Fond Farewell.") "Strung Out Again" conveys the fallout of drug addiction: "Just looking in the mirror will make you a brave man/ I know my place, hate my face."
Musically, the album reconciles Smith's two musical identities — the haunting, raw-nerve acoustic work of his early records and the more expansive, psychedelic and symphonic pop of his later material — taking its aural cues from the lo-fi aesthetics of 1997's Either/Or while maintaining the exploratory nature of his final albums, XO and Figure 8.
While the songwriting is sophisticated, the sound is intentionally rough around the edges, with a distinct element of controlled chaos.
Some tracks are uncharacteristically heavy and build to crescendos of explosive guitars and drums ("Coast to Coast," "Shooting Star"). Musically, "Strung Out Again" bridges these two worlds, beginning with delicate acoustics before bursting open with abrasive drums and fuzzy, swirling guitar overdubs.
Opening with a droning interlude of mumbling spoken-word passages and ghostly noise, "Coast to Coast" is one of Smith's most ambitious studio creations. The oblique opus soon erupts with a distorted cacophony of drums played by the Flaming Lips' Steven Drozd and former Beachwood Sparks member Aaron Sperske.
Conversely, the most emotionally arresting track, "Twilight" — a vulnerable, melancholy acoustic number — harkens back to Smith's seminal Either/Or disc. Other songs also closely cling to spare and raw minimalism ("Little One," "Let's Get Lost"). Ardent fans will recognize many of the album's songs from Smith's stark acoustic performances over the years.
The album concludes with an alternate, updated version of "A Distorted Reality Is Now a Necessity to Be Free," the B-side to Smith's last single ("Pretty [Ugly Before]") that was originally released on Suicide Squeeze Records in August of 2003. The new version, free of the "Strawberry Fields"-ish organ, is still Beatlesque but contains drastically different, vaguely political lyrics: "It's so disappointing, first I put it all down to luck/ God knows why my country don't give a f---."
The track will be available a few months before the release of Basement (August 10) on the Future Soundtrack for America, a compilation assembled by Barsuk Records and McSweeny's Publishing to benefit Moveon.org and similar organizations.
Thirty-four tracks were recorded for the From a Basement on the Hill sessions, and currently there are no specific plans for the remaining 19 songs. B-sides and unreleased material from Smith's two previous albums fall under his contract with DreamWorks Records (which is now owned by Universal Music Group) and it is presently unknown if and when that material will see the light of day, though demoed material for XO called "The Jackpot Sessions" has recently leaked online. Basement is being released on Anti- because Smith’s contract with DreamWorks allowed him to release albums on smaller independent labels.
From a Basement on the Hill track list, according to Smith's longtime publicist:
- "Coast to Coast"
- "Let's Get Lost"
- "Pretty (Ugly Before)"
- "Don't Go Down"
- "Strung Out Again"
- "Fond Farewell"
- "King's Crossing"
- "Ostriches & Chirping"
- "A Passing Feeling"
- "Last Hour"
- "Shooting Star"
- "Memory Lane"
- "Little One"
- "A Distorted Reality Is Now a Necessity to Be Free"
For exlusive photos of Elliott Smith taken by Autumn de Wilde, director of the "Son of Sam" video, click here.
For a feature on the last days of Elliott Smith, see "Elliott Smith: One of Us Is On The Moon."