There's obviously a certain amount of buzz surrounding this record. It's been a full four years since the release of Elliott's last studio album, Figure 8, and practically since that time, fans have been clamoring for the follow up. Rumors of Mr Smith releasing a defining work - the White Album of his time - began to surface. There were whispers of a double-disc release, an epic masterpiece unlike anything in his back catalouge. And of course the biggest bucket of gasoline on the fire was the artist's death under dubious circumstances 363 days before the album sees the light of day.
In the wake of that tragedy, Rob Schnapf - a former producer and collaborator of Elliott's who worked with him on the masterful Either/Or - and Joanna Bolme - another collaborator in a similar fashion, as well as an ex-girlfriend - worked together to piece the completed tracks into a posthumous release. The result stands as a 15 song, single-CD collection that isn't quite the godsend it was rumored to be, but certainly stands with the best work of a very talented songwriter.
Were one to listen to Smith's six albums in order, there's a certain entropic element in the musical progression (not to mention that each record gets progressively longer - this clocks in just shy of an hour - six minutes longer than Figure 8 and nearly twice as long as Smith's solo debut Roman Candle. But I digress). From A Basement on the Hill continues in that tradition, as is evident right from the bombastic opening of 'Coast to Coast.' A spooky string ensemble gives way to a distorted and percussive bombast, typical of the harder-edged songs on this album. In addition, the electric-sludge mix of 'Don't Go Down' and the epic 'Shooting Star' (Smith's longest studio recording that I know of at six minutes) assure that this is the most "rock" album in the singer/songwriter's catalouge.
While the bulk of the songs fall into a pleasant middle ground, these powerhouse, wall-of-sound tracks are balanced out by quieter throwbacks to the more acoustic-driven style of Elliott's Kill Rock Stars albums (the self-titled work and the aforementioned Either/Or). The most obvious of these is 'The Last Hour,' an underprodouced vocal harmony and acoustic guitar track. The somewhat more uptempo 'Let's Get Lost' and the somber 'Little One' are a bit slicker sounding, but would still be at home on earlier works.
There are elements of the adventurous nature of this record scattered about here and there. For example, both 'Coast to Coast' and the superb 'King's Crossing' contain found-vocal samples and the latter takes nearly two minutes for the vocal to kick in - a change from Smith's typically very direct style. And then, there's 'Ostrich & Chirping' - a hallucinatory intermission that sounds like something out of a 1940's Disney movie.
For the first time, full lyrics are not included in the liner notes for the album - quite probably because of Elliott's passing. Instead, actual handwritten lyric sheets (one on hotel stationery, another obviously crumpled up at one point and all contaning cross-outs and margin scribbles) appear for a handful of the songs. But the vocals are mixed very cleanly and Elliott's characteristic themes of loss, addiction, death and anger manage to shine through. It's difficult not to reflect on Elliott's death when listening to Basement, but viewing the album as a suicide note is very much unfair, given the time period during which most of the songs were written (largely 2000-2002, to my knowledge). However, tracks like 'A Fond Farewell' with lines like "A dying man in a living room / whose shadow paces the floor / who'll take you out any open door / this is not my life / it's just a fond farewell to a friend / who couldn't get things right" or 'A Passing Feeling' which laments "Though I'm beyond belief / in the help I require / just to exist at all / took a long time to stand / took an hour to fall" do take on a new poigniancy.
The standout tracks here are the aforementioned 'King's Crossing,' and 'Twilight' - an absolutely heartbreaking ballad midway through with a devastatingly beautiful instrumental verse that's just icing on the cake. The record's closer is also noteworthy. The awkwardly titled 'A Distorted Reality is Now a Necessity to Be Free' has been renovated from the quirky b-side that appeared in late 2003. It now stands as a guitar driven crescendo and an acerbic political statement that closes things on a definite high note.
There's some question, of course, as to how this version of the album would stand against what we might have seen had Elliott lived to oversee it's release. Unfortunately, it's one of those things we'll never have the answer to, but what we do have is a very fine album, to be sure. It's not as raw as Either/Or or as immediately accessable as XO, which are generally regarded to be his two finest works. But nor is it as fussy and relatively emotionless (relatively being the operative word there) as Figure 8. Instead, I'd go so far to say that, because of how it was finally created, Basement is probably the most peculiar balance of a raw unpolished messiness and carefully constructed melody, and it's certainly the biggest "grower" (that is to say that it takes a little time to really appreciate) in Elliott's catalouge. The only taint on this worthy addition to the canon, is that it is the final work, yet it seems to sit right on the edge of something incredibly profound, and just as elusive. Though maybe that, in and of itself, is a testament to a great man's genius.