The Michigan Daily discovered in November 2004 that several articles written by arts editor Alex Wolsky did not meet the newspaper’s standard of ethical journalism. Parts of these stories had been plagiarized from other news sources. Although the article below has not been found to contain plagiarism, the Daily no longer stands by its content. For details, see the Daily’s editorial.

Throughout his 10-year career, Elliott Smith walked a fine line between his public and private self. From his early recordings on Kill Rock Stars — which displayed a quiet, somber Smith, composing almost all of his songs with just a guitar — to his most public moment — a gut-wrenching live performance of his Oscar-nominated song “Miss Misery” at the 1997 Academy Awards — Smith always preferred solitude.

Yesterday, one year after his apparent suicide, his family has released his unfinished sixth album, From a Basement on the Hill. Appropriately, the album reads like a suicide note. Much like many other suicide victims in rock’s canon, such as Ian Curtis and Kurt Cobain, Smith’s brutally honest lyrics touch an open nerve for many, inviting memories of his untimely death, and ultimately overshadowing any growth Smith had hoped to achieve.

His fear of public exposure, seen throughout everything he did, comes through in full frame throughout Basement. The lo-fi recording techniques and intimacy of every song show how comfortable Smith was recording by himself. “Memory Lane” paints Smith as a cautious observer, singing, “If its your decision to be open about yourself / Be careful or else.”

Smith sang and played nearly every instrument on Basement himself, from the swirling guitars on the opener “Coast to Coast” to the multi-layered vocals on the album’s standout track, the stunning closer “A Distorted Reality is Now a Necessity to be Free.” The instruments throughout the album don’t have the bright, full-bodied feeling of his past two efforts Figure 8 and XO; instead, there’s an erratic feeling to Basement — full-bodied guitars with warm tones, fall into swilling, tinny guitars in a heartbeat.

Basement again solidifies Smith’s nearly obsessive attitude toward musical icons and his idol the Beatles, their methods and arrangements. His melodies rise and fall over smooth chord changes, shifting from major to minor to major progressions without missing a beat. The arrangements mirror some of Lennon/McCartney’s most experimental song structures and echo their most distinctive studio methods — simplistic drumming, overarching vocal harmonies, abrupt style changes, tape manipulations, decoy introductions and expansive codas.

Similarly, Smith admired The Beatles’ way of painting depressing lyrics and overtones on top of bright, optimistic music. On “Strung Out Again,” Smith plaintively deals with suicide, singing “I know my place / Hate my face / I know how I began / and how I’ll end.” Throughout Basement, he makes constant references to his past drug abuses and severe depression. He notes on “A Fond Farewell,” “Veins full of disappearing ink / Vomiting in the kitchen sink / This is not my life.”

Although he’s always said that his music wasn’t autobiographical, it’s impossible to hear Basement without thinking of his death and, in effect, this acts as a disservice to an album attempting to make musical strides. Had he lived, the songs would’ve stood fine on their own like his previous albums that all focused on the same subject matter as Basement. However, in his wake, it’s seen as a death letter and it becomes easy to ignore the many facets of Smith’s songs. His attempt to get away from the clean studio production values of his two DreamWorks releases becomes tampered by Basement’s unevenness and intense focus on Smith’s words. And, although the songs don’t have to be about Smith, they demonstrate how well he understood depression and longing for oblivion, and how he could turn his own personal torment into grace.


Rating: 3 out of 5 stars.

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