Originally envisioned as Elliott's interpretation of the Beatles' White Album, From A Basement On the Hill transformed into (what I believe to be) Elliott's defining work. An unfortunately unfinished symphony, it still manages to become a quintessential piece of music history.
For some time, Elliott dealt with the insecurities that accompany most musicians pouring themselves into their work: criticism, soaring popularity, Kurt Cobain syndrome - all were factors of Elliott's uncomfortable presence in the spotlight. Throughout his early career, he implicitly stated that his songs were not diary entries. As if to prove his point, his songs became increasingly more enigmatic, throughout XO and Figure 8.
Basement is Elliott's real inner workings. The album illustrates something new for Elliott, acceptance. He had begun to admit that his sensitivity to friends / relationships was something he would have to learn to deal with. This new narrative is illustrated in songs like A Passing Feeling, Let's Get Lost, and Twilight, songs filled with a sense of letting go - similar to Harrison's All Things Must Pass. Other songs range from criticism of the music industry and Elliott's roles therein ("King's Crossing" / "Strung Out Again") to social commentary ("A Distorted Reality is Now a Necessity to Be Free" "The Last Hour"). The former, as the last track on the album, punctuates the albums statement poignantly.
Like Roman Candle, I don't feel that Elliott had anyone audience in mind when he was creating the album, only a goal: to prove to himself that he could survive.
Throughout much of the recording process, Elliott was delving deeper and deeper into ways he could reach into his darkness. He would spend 3-5 days at a time recording each song from start to finish, without a break. It was his way of pushing pasts barriers, digging even deeper than he had ever gone. I believe he was motivated to do so because he believed it was the only way he could survive. For the year prior to the recording of this album, Elliott became increasingly depressive, drugged, medicated, and isolated. He came to the realization that he had to stop using drugs as a way of dealing with his past, and I believe this album was some of the motivation to heal. Although his abuse continued, and even worsened throughout the recording process, by the end of it - he was clean.
But aside from the amazing emotional depth, the album was technically inspired as well. Many of the tracks were recorded in the vein of Sgt. Pepper, rock's holy grail of avante garde production. Originally produced and mixed by Elliott and David McConnell, they had intentionally approached the album with an all at once historic and new age feel. Bouncing tracks down from 8 to 1, the sounds became fuller, thicker, more condensed. Elliott and David detuned guitars, ran vocals through amps to mics (ala Tomorrow Never Knows), resulting in what I would consider a sorely underappreciated sound. Elliott was determined to create something that hadn't been heard in decades, he wanted every sound to be unique to the album. He was so determined in fact, that he attempted to erase the masters on several occasions - in order to insure that no one could ever stray from the mixes he had birthed. Specifically to avoid any pitch correction via Pro Tools.
Although the album was eventually finished by long time collaborator Rob Schnapf (whose production Elliott had described as "too clean"), the album maintains a density that amazes the most hard to please ears. It is all at once warm, and desolate - fuller, richer.
In the end, the album still feels like a prelude to what was envisioned. The official release ended with just fifteen tracks, a far cry from Elliott's original count of 30. My hope is that somewhere down the road, the family and Interscope will agree to release Basement as it was intended, with the previously cut Stickman, True Love Is A Rose, From A Poison Well, Let's Turn the Record Over, Abused, Almost Over, Suicide Machine, and the other - as these songs only further elaborate the amazing story that is Basement.
Until then, we're left with what will unfortunately be remembered as an incredible artist's last album. I think it's important to mention that in the end, Basement did end up helping Elliott. By the time the album was near completion, he had been clean for some time. He was planning benefit concerts for Clean Needle, and intended for most of the profits from Basement to go towards the Elliott Smith Foundation, established to provide aid to abused children. I think Elliott's death will forever overshadow what a beautiful, honest, innovative, cathartic, and important album Basement truly is. But my hope is that it will only grow to be more appreciated...