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Elliott Smith - New Moon Print E-mail
Sunday, 01 July 2007
format:    16-bit CD
performance:    7
sound:    6
released:    2007
label:    Kill Rock Stars
reviewer:    Matt Fink

ImageAs much as I’ve enjoyed picking over every posthumously released sneeze, cough and hum that Johnny Cash, Tupac Shakur and Kurt Cobain left behind before they exited this Earth, at a certain point you have to stop and wonder if we’re distorting their legacies through our obsessive need to have documentation of our heroes’ every last waking moment. I mean, I’m as curious as the next guy about undiscovered gems that could be waiting in lost reels of tape, but it seems that we’re awarding a disproportionate amount of attention to recordings that were unfinished, inessential, and otherwise not intended for official release by their creators. Though it’s reassuring to think that our favorite artists will be granted an odd immortality through these continuous streams of new releases, in most cases such recordings simply aren’t very good.

For an artist like Elliott Smith, a true visionary who died well before his creative juices were due to run out, the desire to find the missing chapters in his story is particularly acute. The rare singer-songwriter whose gift for heartbroken melodies and profoundly self-searching verse allowed him to transcend the usual strictures of the standard pop song format, Smith represented the punk ethos turning inward, coming out as a one-man Beatles. And given the seemingly inexhaustible stream of outtakes, live recordings and alternate versions that have turned up on peer-to-peer networks since his 2003 death, it’s obvious that his officially released work is only a small fraction of what he actually did in his lifetime. New Moon is the first time we’ve been treated to an official opening of the Elliott Smith archives, the first attempt to expose the tip of the iceberg.
His second official posthumous release, following 2004’s work-in-the-process From a Basement on the Hill, New Moon is two discs of 24 tracks recorded from 1994 to 1997, the first phase of Smith’s career. As such, these lo-fi, often solo recordings of just Smith and his acoustic guitar wouldn’t have been at all out of place on 1995’s self-titled release or 1997’s Either/Or, the two albums that paved the way for the lushly produced studio recordings that would follow. The sound is familiar – Smith’s softly quivering vocals, double- and triple-tracked acoustic guitars and a minimum of backing instruments. And for the most part, they don’t sound any less developed than anything on those albums. These tracks capture a master craftsman at the top of his game.

Deceptively complex, even Smith’s outtakes are full of the personality and attention to detail that make him stand out from every other singer-songwriter who works within the dynamics of verses and choruses. A consummate student of his craft, more so than any writer of his generation, Smith knew how to control the dynamics of his melodies and phrasing to push his listeners exactly where he wanted them to go. To that extent, the commonplace verses of “Going Nowhere” seem specially designed to make the devastatingly mournful minor chord changes on the chorus all the more affecting. Likewise, the gorgeously layered harmony lines and smirking descending guitar flourishes of “Go By” appear placed to muddy the emotional waters, creating a song that is at once both serenely ethereal and subtly self-mocking.

Solemn and despondent, these songs capture Smith cozying up with the demons that would pursue him the rest of his life. “I don’t go where I’m s’posed to go/and I don’t go really anywhere, you know,” he admits in “High Times,” describing a walk through town to scan the faces of passersby to look for his dealer, his voice shrill with an uncharacteristic sharpness as he says that he has made up his mind, he can’t be talked out of it, and he feels great. “You’ve got an empty hole/you know that you’ve got to fill it with something,” he sings innocently on “New Monkey,” brilliantly animating the voices in his head as they tell him that heroin is his only hope for happiness. As always, the unprecedented bluntness with which Smith described his struggles makes his songs shake with urgency and authenticity, often making it difficult to know whether he’s talking about himself or someone else, whether he’s describing the obsessions of love or addiction. As such, it’s hard to know whether “First Timer” is about the anticipation of sex, scoring drugs, or something else altogether, the song’s plaintive acoustic guitar strums and sighing harmonies conveying nothing but trepidation and regret.

Offering us a look into Smith’s songwriting sketch book, an early version of his Grammy-nominated “Miss Misery” shows Smith having nailed down much of the song’s despondent tone but still struggling to find the right language to communicate the caustic pessimism. More jaded and ominous than the version that would turn up on the Good Will Hunting soundtrack, what this rendition lacks in precision it makes up for in intimacy, the song’s shuddering vocal and lonely guitar strums creating an even more hopeless sentiment. An even better piece of trivia is “Pretty Mary K (other version),” which is in fact an early version of From a Basement on a Hill’s “Everything’s OK,” and not Figure 8’s “Pretty Mary K.” With a tumbling acoustic guitar figure, homely accordion and lightly brushed snare, this rendition makes obvious why Smith eventually revisited it, as his picturesque description of losing love and threatening suicide cut straight to the song’s forlorn desperation.

Ultimately, since it’s a compilation of tracks, New Moon lacks the cohesiveness of Smith’s studio albums, but the lingering feeling is the same. Listening to these tracks, though, Smith seems even more fragile, vulnerable and innocent than he would on later releases; the intensity of his self-loathing and loneliness indicate that he still harbored at least some modicum of hope to shake off his self-destructiveness. Soon enough, the self-effacing charm of these songs would give way to the pure and utter despair of later releases, his wit growing more sharp and acerbic but losing some of the threadbare humanity found here. These are songs that still reverberate with the energy of not yet knowing the ending to a tragic story, and in that context we can be forgiven for wanting to drop by to read a few of the better missing chapters.

Minimal but not overly lo-fi, the fuzzy production will be familiar to anyone who has spent some time with the albums he released during that ’94-’97 period. Vocals are high in the mix and multi-tracked, guitars are brightly strummed and intricately picked, and any drums or keyboards are buried and nearly inaudible. Even so, Smith has proven exceptionably adept at making a simple arrangement sparkle with textural and emotional depth, with each holding little revelations that push through the early morning haze of his bleary-eyed vocals and dewy guitar strums. That said, it probably sounds about the same coming out of cheap headphones as it does on an immaculate sound system.

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