By David Browne
Updated October 22, 2004 at 04:00 AM EDT
Elliott Smith: Ethan Hill/Retna

The phrase ”lowered expectations” could have been invented for the tapes Elliott Smith left behind when he was declared dead from knife wounds a year ago. His previous album, 2000’s Figure 8, was churlish and overproduced, and the subsequent years had found him sliding into a drug-exacerbated tailspin. At his infrequent public performances, he’d appeared listless and out of sorts. It has yet to be determined whether his death was a suicide or a murder.

Given such shaky circumstances, it’s reasonable to assume that from a basement on the hill — the disc Smith was recording sporadically during those intervening years — would have been a collection of despondent, incoherent fragments. But in a shocker not quite on par with his death but pretty close, the record is strong and radiant, if not always upbeat. Turning mental breakdown into its own form of frazzled beauty, the album is, ironically, one of the best he ever made.

Smith always was a puzzling character: an indie rocker who was a closet folkie and sang unemotionally about emotion. His silken voice, which tended to float above his melodies, had an opaque quality that held everything in check; it was the sound of passion trying to emerge from numbness. He made balladry worthy again, and his influence has filtered down to Bright Eyes, Badly Drawn Boy, the Shins, and many left-of-center singer-songwriters, some of whom went on to outsing and outwrite him.

Was any of this consolation to him during his darkest hours? Listening to basement, one thinks not. The songs are filled with references to wasted days and wasted nights, enervation and sloth, a house that scares everyone away, and codependent relationships: When Smith pleads to a wayward lover, ”Don’t go down/Stay with me” in ”Don’t Go Down,” he sounds as if he’s afraid of falling into the gutter too. In one particularly disturbing image, he sings of a girl who dreamed she ”had seen her own body outlined in chalk.” In ”A Distorted Reality Is Now a Necessity to Be Free,” he feels let down by the world; in the musically hallucinogenic ”Strung Out Again,” he chides himself for getting high. The lyrics aren’t incoherent, but they’re often rambling and confusing: ”Is it destruction that you require to feel?” he laments in ”Pretty (Ugly Before).” But is he attacking himself or someone else?

None of these subjects broke new ground for him, and in some ways, neither did the music that accompanied it. Once again, the songs alternate between feathery unplugged ruminations and shaggy electric shuffles. But before his death, according to Benjamin Nugent’s new bio Elliott Smith and the Big Nothing, Smith had become fixated on the Beatles’ White Album. You hear Smith trying to attain the same blend of stark minimalism and pungent melody as on that sprawl, and you also hear him succeed plenty. Chaste tracks like ”A Fond Farewell” and ”Let’s Get Lost,” in which the beautiful melody implies that dissolution can be heavenly, are delicate but not vaporous. ”Don’t Go Down,” with its guitar tornados, and ”Coast to Coast,” with its psychedelic blues, have a razory toughness John Lennon would have admired. Smith doesn’t sound energized — then again, he rarely did — but he does seem like someone who, amidst all the turmoil in which he found himself, found his focus in ways he hadn’t always before.

Smith could still come across like something of a jerk: In the vindictive ”Shooting Star,” he cuts down a woman who wants to ”f— some trophy boy that you won tonight at the bar.” His sighing delivery blunts the bitterness, but his ire and emotion are palpable — and, in a strange way, welcome. One wonders what Smith made of the state of alt-rock at the time of his death, when musicians who most heavily traffic in out-front earnestness, like Dashboard Confessional, are treated like circus freaks, and the fake exuberance of the loathsome Polyphonic Spree is championed despite its clear-cut mockery of all things sincere. If Smith took his own life, did part of him feel there was no longer a place for what he did? In the saddest news of all, he may have been right.