Unhappy Ever After

Posthumous offering from the brilliant but troubled singer-songwriter who died a year ago

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When Elliott Smith died last year, he left behind a large number of tracks from which he was assembling the follow-up to 2000’s Figure 8. The plan was to release a double album that would break up the more accessible songs with tracks that were significantly more distorted and disorienting. With no final track listing left behind as a guide, Smith’s estate?his divorced parents and their respective partners?has overseen a version of From A Basement On The Hill, and certainly the more unpalatable tracks appear to have been weeded out.

What remains is a 15-song collection that sits in contrast to Figure 8 and 1998’s XO. Where those two DreamWorks albums benefited from musicianly flourishes and retro instrumentation, From A Basement…returns us to the more unfiltered, denuded sound of his earlier Kill Rock Stars records. There’s no strings or vibes or bass saxophones here. While that precludes the pop magnificence of “Baby Britain” and Costello-esque brilliance of “Waltz #2”, it does remind us of what made Smith so special on his first three albums: the soft, double-tracked phrasing that’s part Paul Simon, part Alex Chilton; the dragging lo-fi riffs; the wounded moods he conjured through his bittersweet chords.

From A Basement… alternates between angry and pretty?sludgily heavy (“Coast To Coast”, “Don’t Go Down”) and gossamer-light (“Let’s Get Lost”, “Last Hour”). The grungey stuff is as good as “Junk Bond Trader”, the delicate songs as intimate as “Angeles”. God, he was great. Inevitably, one searches in these songs for clues as to Smith’s state of mind over the last two years of his life. The inferences are not cheerful. “Fond Farewell” is virtually a suicide note to himself. “Strung Out Again” is all but self-explanatory. “King’s Crossing” is almost psychedelic in its suicidal intensity. While his own “Basement” must remain hypothetical, here are 15 more reasons not to forget Elliott Smith’s harrowing sadness?and his singular musical intelligence.

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The Velvet Underground, The Black Crowes, Bunny Wailer, Richard Thompson, Nick Cave, Rhiannon Giddens, Laurie Anderson, Blake Mills, Postcard Records, Mogwai and The Selecter
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