PORTLAND, Ore. – It's been almost a year since singer-songwriter Elliott Smith (search) committed suicide, and fans and friends will be looking for answers as the posthumous "From a Basement on the Hill" is released.
Smith, known for his dark, introspective songs about love, loss and addiction was found dead in his Los Angeles apartment last year, and several factors pointed to suicide, police said.
Some fans said the 34-year-old singer-songwriter had finally given up fighting his depression and drug abuse. Smith's friends and family said the musician was getting better by working on a new album.
"From a Basement," was based on studio recordings done before Smith's death. His family sought out Rob Schnapf, who co-produced two of Smith's albums, and Joanna Bolme (search), the musician's former girlfriend, to mix the album, which comes out Oct. 19.
"It'll definitely be a strange moment," said Sean Croghan, a close friend of Smith's. "It's going to be pretty melancholy, a sweet sadness."
Born in Omaha, Neb., Smith grew up near Dallas and moved to Portland at age 14. After graduating from Hampshire College (search) in Massachusetts, Smith returned to Portland and founded the punk band Heatmiser. On the side, he recorded three solo albums on independent labels that recalled the lush pop of the Beatles and the ballads of Nick Drake (search).
The sadness of Smith's songs, often set in minor keys, sometimes masked his intelligence and goofy sense of humor, said Croghan, who shared a house with Smith in Portland.
"He loved taking a joke and running it into the ground. He would repeat it a thousand times," Croghan said. "Elliott was depressed. Everybody knows that.... I equally saw Elliott as totally joyful and having fun and enjoying life."
Smith's big break came when Portland movie director Gus Van Sant (search) used several of his songs on the soundtrack to the 1997 hit "Good Will Hunting." The song "Miss Misery" was nominated for an Oscar, but lost to Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On."
The movie brought Smith's music to a mainstream audience, and he signed with DreamWorks Records, which released his next two albums, "XO" (1998) and "Figure 8" (2000).
Smith had completed recording most of the tracks on "From a Basement" when he died on Oct. 21, 2003, said his publicist, Felice Ecker.
A Los Angeles County coroner later ruled that Smith died from two stab wounds to the chest that could have been inflicted by himself or someone else. Police called the death a suicide.
"It was horrible and sad and devastating," said Charlie Ramirez, 31, who has run Smith's official fan site since 1997. "It was probably one of the biggest losses I had ever dealt with."
"From a Basement" offers only enigmatic clues to what happened last October and why. The songs, which range from bare guitar to full indie-rock arrangements, reflect Smith's usual mix of hope, frustration and weary resignation to life's injustices.
"I can't prepare for death any more than I already have," Smith sings in "King's Crossing." "All you can do now is watch the shells. The game looks easy. That's why it sells."
Friends say "From a Basement" shows a new direction for Smith, toward more complex songs and a wider variety of styles.
"To me, it's a recovery record," said Alex Steiniger, who heads the independent Portland music label and magazine In Music We Trust (search). "He sees the end of the tunnel and he's going for it, which makes it all the more ironic and perplexing."
So far, Smith's family has been tightlipped about their decision to release the album. Co-producers Schnapf and Bolme granted two interviews within a 24-hour period in June, then declined to speak with anyone else.
Smith's family "really felt a sense of commitment to getting this out there quickly," said publicist Ecker. "Elliott really wanted this album out there."