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Big nothings
The last word on Elliott Smith

In his recent biography of singer-songwriter Elliott Smith, Elliott Smith and the Big Nothing (Da Capo), Benjamin Nugent never manages a complete picture of his elusive subject. In part, thatís because most of Smithís close friends and family members werenít willing to be interviewed about Smith after his apparent suicide on October 21, 2003, from what looked to be self-inflicted stab wounds in the chest. Smithís death in fact remains an open case because of factors the coroner found inconsistent with suicide, especially the absence of the "hesitation marks" that suicide-by-stabbing victims typically leave in testing the knife somewhere on their body before inflicting the fatal wound.

But Nugentís difficulty in pinning down his subject is also due to contradictions inherent in the way Smith lived his life, the veil of secrecy he often maintained, and the cryptic body of work he left behind ó poetic songs that mixed what might be autobiographical facts in with obvious fictions or, at least, exaggerations. Itís one of the elements that made Smith, whose first name wasnít even Elliott (it was Steven), such an effective songwriter: he had a talent for drawing on feelings of shame, alienation, and isolation in a way that was both personal and universal.

Which is not to suggest that his solo work was Top 40 material. "Miss Misery," a song he wrote for the soundtrack to Good Will Hunting, did earn him an Oscar nomination, and that brought him a measure of mainstream recognition and a major-label deal with DreamWorks. But he was never a platinum artist. No, he was merely regarded by peers and critics alike as one of the most talented singer-songwriters and all-around musicians of his generation. He often played all of the instruments on his solo recordings, and he was something of a prodigy when it came to picking up an instrument and mastering it.

Although Elliott Smith and the Big Nothing raises as many questions as it properly answers, it does serve as companion piece to From a Basement on the Hill (AntiĖ), the 15-song disc culled by "Elliottís family and friends" from the album of the same title he was, depending upon who you ask, either working on or nearly finished with at the time of his death. The album was written and recorded, as Nugent details, during a particularly dark part of Smithís life, after he moved from Brooklyn to LA, cut his ties with management, producers Rob Schnapf and Tom Rothrock (whoíd worked with him on his two previous albums for DreamWorks), and most of his close friends, and began a period of heavy drug use, with crack cocaine and heroin high on the list.

He had also been in the process of attempting to sever his ties with DreamWorks and had gotten the company to agree to let him release From a Basement on the Hill on an independent label of his choice. Thatís a deal DreamWorks appears to have honored after his death, since AntiĖ is part of the Epitaph family of independent labels. Nugent suggests that DreamWorksí unusual decision was based on the unusual condition that the labelís senior executives found Smith in when they visited him in the studio. From a Basement on the Hill was thought to be his "drug album," and after attempting some sort of intervention thatís only hinted at in the book, DreamWorks seems to have felt it was in the labelís interest to take a hands-off approach in the hope he would come around to a more commercial way of thinking. Weíll never know what might have been. And though thereís surely enough unused Smith material in the vaults for DreamWorks or another label to put out at least one more Smith disc (a prolific songwriter who could record finished songs on just a four-track, it seems he was aiming to make From a Basement on the Hill a double album), for the time being, this is all Smithís fans have to go on.

Itís almost impossible to listen to the album without searching for the musical equivalent of forensic evidence. In part because he was given to singing in such a quiet, quivering manner, Smithís solo material always had a personal edge to it. He had the ability to make you lean in to hear the next line, and those who did often felt they were coming away with the kind of secret a trusting friend in trouble might reveal. I remember seeing Smith play solo downstairs at the Middle East shortly after "Miss Misery" made it possible for him to fill that 600-capacity room, and the crowd was so quiet, you could hear several audience members weeping. I also saw him a few years later in New York, when he stopped several songs halfway through, dropped lyrics, and missed chord changes and not a single person in the crowd dared say a word. And then there were shows he played at clubs like Bostonís Roxy, where, backed by Sleater-Kinney drummer Janet Weiss and her partner in the band Quasi, Sam Coomes (whoíd played bass in the punk band Heatmiser with Smith before Smithís solo career took off), he wielded an electric guitar and sang pitch-perfect throughout.

Perhaps because the version of From a Basement on the Hill we now have was assembled by some of the same people heíd recorded previous albums with, itís not quite the druggy departure that Nugent (or the Smith he quotes both second-hand and from a couple of interviews) would have one believe. All of Smithís signature idiosyncrasies are here, from the double-tracked, softly sung vocals that adorn the second cut, "Letís Get Lost," which features little more than Smith accompanying himself on what sounds like a 12-string guitar thatís had its six low-octave strings removed, to the almost bright, Beatle-esque melodies that support the piano-laced "Pretty (Ugly Before)." And as far as drug references go, Smith was always prone to fill his lyrics with allusions to heroin and other substances of abuse. The first song on his second solo album, a homonymous release on Kill Rocks Stars, was called "Needle in the Hay" and is full of heroin references; he followed that up with Either/Or (Kill Rock Stars), whose opener, "Speed Trials," is not about NASCAR racing.

But there are tracks on the new CD that take Smithís style of folk rock in new directions. "Strung Out Again" starts gently enough, with Smith hitting some impressive high notes against a spare backdrop. Before long, however, heavy, distorted guitars begin to intrude, until thereís a near cacophony of soloing going on behind lyrics that, typical of Smith, reflect inner turmoil of some sort. ("You get what you see . . . I donít know where Iím going . . . I donít even want to know . . . ") And thereís more noodling guitar work than in all his previously recorded solo material put together. A number of tracks begin or end with incidental music, like the abstract orchestrations that cast a dark, ominous shadow over the lead-in to the first cut, "Coast to Coast," whose guitar solo is clearly meant to sound just a little out of tune. Then again, the song that most resembles a suicide note, "A Fond Farewell" ("A little less than a happy high/A little less than a suicide/The only things that you really try/This is not my life/Itís just a fond farewell to a friend . . . I couldnít get things right"), is just Smith strumming an acoustic guitar under his own double-tracked vocals, with little more than a tasteful electric guitar solo intruding upon the intimacy, like a friend stopping by to say hello.

In other words, there are no major revelations here. If, as Nugent suggests, Smith was abusing heroin and cocaine during the sessions, it doesnít show on the album. And if bleakness blankets From a Basement on the Hill, that doesnít mark a major change in tone from his previous releases. Although he might have mixed these songs differently, or placed the tracks in a different order, or succeeded in making a double album of it, From a Basement on the Hill holds together as a complete piece of work. This is not akin in any way to Jeff Buckleyís Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk (Columbia), a posthumous release that really hadnít been completed before Buckleyís death. Perhaps the saddest realization the album triggers is the most basic one: in spite of whatever turmoil Smith was going through in the last few years of his life, he remained an exceptional and vital talent who was still growing as an artist.

Just as From a Basement on the Hill doesnít tell us what happened to Elliott Smith, Elliott Smith and the Big Nothing fails to clear up the mystery surrounding his death. According to Nugentís sources, Smith was free of addiction at the time of his death and was living relatively happily with his girlfriend. But others have suggested that he still didnít look to be in full health in the weeks before he died. What remains indisputable is that Elliott Smithís words and music touched people in ways that are just as mysterious as the life he lived. And that means his loss will be felt for years to come.

Issue Date: November 19 - 25, 2004
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