As you can probably tell from how late this review is in arriving, I held off from listening to From A Basement On The Hill for quite some time after it came out. Although I've never been as huge of a fan of Elliot Smith as some people, I think that his work is generally strong and his earlier efforts (Roman Candle, Either/Or) are heartbreaking and true and easily some of the better singer/songwriter stuff out there. As he went along and got a little more produced (his XO and Figure 8 efforts especially), his work seemed to lose some of that rough vitality that his less arranged work had, and although there were good tracks on each of those previous albums, they don't find near as much playing time in my stereo as his early work.
By the time I found From A Basement On A Hill spinning, I'd already read in seemingly equal parts from different sources that it was both a stunning release and a letdown. After listening to the 15 tracks on the disc, I'd have to agree that it's a little bit of both. At times it feels extremely vital, and at others it simply feels overthought and overworked. At 15 tracks and nearly an hour in running length, it also feels a bit overlong, a problem that none of his previous succinct albums had.
"Coast To Coast" opens the release with one of the more ambitious tracks that Smith has ever done. Although it doesn't have the orchestral moments that touch previous works, it growls with juicy guitars and heavy drums while multiple vocal tracks, pianos, organs, and other elements swirl. There's even some spoken word poetry mixed into the background as another disembodied voice to help make the track even more schizophrenic sounding. "Let's Get Lost" drops things back to just a guitar and vocals, and it sounds like vintage Smith, while "Don't Go Down" hammers away with overcompressed drums and guitars, again taking on a much more aggressive feel than anything Smith had done before.
Musically, "King's Crossing" is probably the most grabbing track on the entire release. Opening with backwards guitar swirls and understated vocals, it picks up steam with wheezy harmonium and launches into an anthematic chorus that would be celebratory if it weren't for the insanely depressing vocals. While Smith's suicide last year clearly surprised a lot of people (who said that he'd seemed happier than they'd ever seen him at the time), the vocal themes on From A Basement On The Hill show a lot of mental wrangling about past (and possibly even present) choices. It was hard enough hearing Smith wrenching with drug and personal problems in his recordings before, but this posthumous illustrates that he was unfortunately still dealing with things. While it makes a lot of musical leaps (it's probably the most "experimental" work he's done), not all of them work, but there are still some great moments for fans of his work here.