A Fond Farewell

by Charles Miller on November 9, 2004

I heard on the radio that a tenth anniversary "special edition" of Jeff Buckley's Grace is going to be released. I would like to say, from the bottom of my heart, STOP IT. Stop digging up the poor man's corpse and parading it around on holidays. We all have Grace already, and after ten years the bottom of the barrel of unreleased material from an incredibly short career has been scraped raw.

Posthumous albums can be powerful eulogies. They can be unfortunate, but well-meaning collections of tracks the artist wasn't happy enough with to release when he was alive. They can be blatant record-company cash-ins.

Elliot Smith's swan-song, From a Basement on a Hill, on the other hand, is just annoying. I was expecting some kind of closure, but what I got was just a bloody good CD.

To fill in the back-story: after the patchy Figure 8, Smith retreated to his own studio, getting permission from Dreamworks to release his next album independently. Three years later, he was dead. If you take the official reports at face value (many are skeptical), stabbing yourself in the heart twice shows a certain commitment to ending it all.

I think I assumed that this retreat would mean a step back to the more acoustic sound of the pre-Dreamworks albums, and that From a Basement would be a revisiting of Either/Or, a full-circle, a full-stop.

It was a return to form, but not a return to the past. Smith took advantage of his freedom: using it to flirt with a heavier sound, experiment with songwriting and studio tricks, and do things with producing his music that were more daring, and more raw than Dreamworks may have allowed.

The characteristic Smith melodies are still there. The songwriting that has been compared so often with Lennon/McCartney to become a cliché. The multi-tracked vocals. The skilful picking of acoustic guitars. The melancholy lyrics. The occasional track that strips everything back to voice, guitar and tune. But From a Basement on a Hill was Smith progressing as an artist.

Despite the emphasis on lines like "I can't prepare for death more than I already have", and "Give me one reason not to do it", this CD shows me a Smith moving forwards musically, not one about to abruptly stop. And that's why it's annoying.

I feel cheated.

I want to hear what he does next, damnit.

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