New Moon (Kill Rock Stars, 2007)
by Elliott Smith
originally published at Dusted Magazine
Elliott Smith would be hard pressed to haunt us much more in death than he did in life. The creepily elegant ephemerality in his work, that whisper-thin undertow of doom, was always inseparable from his genius, even at his most opulent. So there is a spectral quality to New Moon, a two-disc collection of unreleased songs and rare b-sides from between 1994 and 1997, but it doesn't owe much to Smith's being dead for nearly four years now; it's more an effect of the brooding, skeletal medium he worked in, especially during those years between his desolate self-titled album and the needle-sharpened either/or.
Nearly all of these songs have been floating around for some time thanks to filesharers and anthologists like elliottsmithbsides.com, but their assembly here boasts markedly improved sound quality and liner notes that help situate many familiar but rootless selections. (They also feature poignant recollections from Smith's friends and an insufferable song-by-song analysis by Christopher O'Riley.) The semi-chronological tracking is a jarring departure from the studied shapeliness of Smith's proper albums, but in a way this feels appropriate: New Moon steers admirably clear of curatorial meddling and lets the songs, the sweet ones right next to the severe, build a portrait of a solo artist's formative years. This is a singer learning to balance fragility and vitriol, romance and alienation, an unassuming voice and a prophetic eye. The results, though rarely the caliber of the albums that bookended this era, are a consistent delight.
Still, it's hard to know how to listen to them. Despite an impressive proportion of perfect-as-is gems – see "Angel in the Snow" and "Going Nowhere" for starters – the collection's chief offering is of pieces that need some refinement, smoother metaphors or softer melodies: songs that show an immense promise that will, as we hear them, never be realized. They do offer an instructive insight into Smith's writing and editing process, and one is pleased now and then to recognize a moment lifted from another song (the bridge of "Alphabet Town" in "Talking To Mary," say) or bemused by a disappointing revision ("I can't hold my liquor but I keep a good attitude / 'Cause it's alright: some enchanted night, I'll be with you", which would be sanded down to "I don't have you with me but I keep a good attitude / Do you miss me, Miss Misery, like you say you do?” in time for the 1998 Oscars).
That anthropological value is, in turn, the only thing that makes New Moon any more disquieting than the records Smith saw released (or 2004's posthumous From A Basement On The Hill). From the unguarded space surrounding these songs, we get to infer negatively the kind of perfectionist he was, how much effort went into the pristine clarity of his real catalog – and feel guilty, perhaps, for trespassing among his clumsy rhymes and half-baked melodic turns. Maybe we need the stream-of-consciousness acrimony of "Looking Over My Shoulder" in order to fully admire a devastatingly simple refrain like the one in "Talking To Mary" ("One day she'll go/ I told you so"); maybe the knowledge of all the work behind his genius should be an affirmation to the rest of us. Maybe the compulsion to think of New Moon as a record for Smith completists, because anyone less devoted would misunderstand and misuse it, is only indicative of how curiously protective a covenant with Elliott Smith, or his ghost, can make us.
Regardless, disquiet is part of that covenant too, and the rewards of New Moon are too great to stay away on respectful grounds. The concise rock fervor of "New Monkey," the restless patter of "Pretty Mary K" (altogether different from the one on Figure 8), the heartbreaking waver in his one-take cover of Big Star's "Thirteen" – these are moments that come to feel just as essential as anything he ever packaged, despite and in a way due to their orphanhood. O'Riley proposes in his essay that this is Smith "at his very best," which seems both untrue and unfair. It's more like Smith at his most human, his most flawed and tentative and, for better or worse, his most accessible.back