Album: Elliott Smith

From a Basement on the Hill, DOMINO
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The Independent Culture

On 2000's Figure 8, Elliott Smith seemed more concerned than ever with the prickly particularity of our individual lives, and especially the enduring problem of how to communicate with others apparently just as crippled by confusion as Smith was himself. This posthumous swansong perhaps offers a few oblique indications as to why the songwriter may have failed to come up with answers adequate to preventing him from taking his own life.

On 2000's Figure 8, Elliott Smith seemed more concerned than ever with the prickly particularity of our individual lives, and especially the enduring problem of how to communicate with others apparently just as crippled by confusion as Smith was himself. This posthumous swansong perhaps offers a few oblique indications as to why the songwriter may have failed to come up with answers adequate to preventing him from taking his own life.

There's a pervasive sense of doom about the album, which I confess will probably prevent me revisiting it too often. It's there in the tortured introspection of songs like "Let's Get Lost" - where Smith echoes Chet Baker in "Burning every bridge I cross/ To find some beautiful place to get lost" - and "The Last Hour", where the singer's decision to remain feeling down - nobody can give him any more grief - seems prompted by the same aversion to celebrity that spurred several of his immediate post- Good Will Hunting compositions. "I've been thinking of the things that I miss," he notes glumly, "Situations that I passed up for this."

The sense of doom is also there in details like the dream someone has in "Don't Go Down", in which they see the chalk outline of their own body; and it's there, too, in the various drug references that litter the album, from the mordant portrait of a junkie Christmas - you can guess what his girlfriend's getting him - depicted with such unapologetic, nihilistic disdain in "King's Crossing", to the harrowing "Strung Out Again", slashed with jagged shards of cruel electric guitar. "Those drugs won't make you feel better," he croons weakly in "Twilight", a tragic acknowledgement of addiction, "Pretty soon you'll find it's the only little part of your life you're keeping together."

Though Rob Schnapf is retained for mixdown duties, Smith has dispensed with the services of Tom Rothrock, who brought a focus and smooth professionalism to XO and Figure 8 that threatened to push the singer into the mainstream. Instead, he's reverted to the mostly DIY approach of his earlier albums, which works well on the simpler arrangements, such as that to "Memory Lane", a raggy little number about depression, medication and isolation which finds him retreating to "the little house on memory lane". But it's less effective on the tracks featuring his layered guitar parts, which tend toward the muddy and miasmic.

One of the few shafts of light piercing the gloom is "Pretty (Ugly Before)", which relates Smith's surprise at the way another's interest in you can boost morale to the point where you actually start believing you might be handsome. And even that is set to a melody and arrangement that seem to echo Pink Floyd, as if such a ridiculous notion were just a great cosmic joke.

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