Review Summary: A wonderful collection of posthumous material, Elliott Smith's New Moon serves both as an enjoyble listen, and a testament to the fact that, even at his worst, Elliott was still a surreal talent.
For those of you who have never walked your streets at midnight, staring at the moon and kicking empty beer bottles while wallowing in a hazy stupor of bitter self-pity, then perhaps you might not truly appreciate the brilliance that Elliott Smith can share with you.
But for those of you who have found the satisfaction of crunching of broken pavement bits beneath your feet while staring into the vacant glow of a lonely streetlight, the arrival of Elliott Smith’s 2007 posthumous rarities collection, New Moon
, is undoubtedly, if nothing else, a thoroughly exciting prospect. Assembled from the bits and pieces of studio time he had logged and flavored with a handful of acutely intimate living-room 4-track manifestos, New Moon
is the vehicle his Kill Rock Stars label is using to flush out the last remnants of tape still laying around the vaults- mostly gems and mementos from the years of 1994 and 1996- (his oft-described peak years, sandwiched right between his commonly-accepted apex Either/Or
, and it’s predecessor, Elliott Smith
). Combining an eclectic array of clever full-band compositions and lonely reflective acoustic wanderings- all sprinkled with Elliott’s part junkie, part street-poet lyric persona, New Moon offers us freakishly well-put together sketch of where Elliott was, both musically and emotionally at this moment of his life.
Honestly, it’s just amazing to sit down and look at just how ***ing great this body of work is as a whole. Elliott Smith is one of those bizarre freaks of nature who seem to be intimately self-aware of their own music- one of those truly few depressingly pure artists who sound as if grasping a guitar neck is no different than grasping a vital life preserver amidst an endless sea of oblivion. (And for the most part, that’s a faithful analogy- in the grand style of Kurt Cobain and Bradley Nowell, Elliott Smith- grounded in childhood neglect and drug addiction, was thrust up and unwillingly pegged with the illustrious duties of the “generational spokesman”, eventually succumbing- under questionable circumstances, to the wild and self-destructive tendencies that had plagued his throughout his life.)
While the familiar withered, Nick Drake-esque singer/songwriter cliché’s (“...a visionary....”, “...genius, tortured artist...”) apply when describing Elliott’s maverick style, his sound really is every bit as unique as his cult following espouses. With a seemingly intrinsic mastery of various musical genres, Elliott appears to draw the precisely right qualities out from his reservoir of influences- the cynical energy of punk; the delicate beauty of acoustic folk; the essential truth of a great pop melody- all without falling victim to the cliché’s that respectively plague them. His guitar playing is a beautiful contradiction, oscillating between a soft and hauntingly fragile introspection, and powerful, outwardly confrontational aggression- which frame, almost perfectly, Elliott’s chilling “spider-thin whisper” vocal style and inherent talent for orchestrating brilliant changes in energy and mood (a talent stifled in his pervious band, Heatmiser, leading Smith to bemoan it all as “...loud rock songs with no dynamic”). Creating geniusly poppy songs that upon first listen were wild and confusing (only later revealing their intrinsic beauty), Elliott Smith played both the part of the accomplished musician (finger-picking, fantastic double-tracked harmonies…) and the charmingly emotive songwriter (Sweet Jesus!, did you hear that melody…?)
And all of this, surprisingly, is evident of on New Moon
. From the brilliantly intricate opening folk waltz of “Angel in the Snow” it is clear that even Smith’s allegedly inferior works possess an invaluable musical worth. Wistful, wandering- these brooding songs seep out from the speakers and almost immediately drape you in a somber and pensive whirl. The deathly croon in “High Times”, the earnest humility of “First Timer”, the frantic begging of “Big Decision”- all moments of pure clarity that make this compilation such a fantastic piece of passion and honesty. While not quite a thorough portrait of sheer desperation and fear as his albums (nor the subsequent From A Basement On A Hill
, Elliott’s highly successful like-minded posthumous release drawing from later material)- in it’s place is this curiously different side of Elliott- a more comforting, almost optimistic
style of thinking. True enough, there are more then a handful of the familiar “dear-diary” street-wise junkie monologues (take example from “New Monkey”:I’m here with my cup / afraid to look up / this is how I spend my time / lazin’ around, head hangin’ down / stuck inside my imagination / busy making something from nothing.
). But here he also seems to reveal his wonderfully sweet (if not short-lived) playful side- see the tender, prepubescent love premise of “Thirteen” and the down-but-looking-up hopefulness of “Whatever (Folk Song in C)”- both cast in a wonderfully spacious euphoria of swirling acoustic guitar strums, simplistic in nature but masterfully flourished by hidden subtleties.
Guys, I apologize for the blatant use of clichéd sentiments concerning the whole Elliott/dead/genius equation, but *** if this isn’t a poignant manifestation of just how much talent the music community at large lost when Elliott’s chest was pierced by that knife.
Of course, this album isn’t really a perfect listen. I’ve been ranting and espousing the New Moon
cause like an unemployed union worker, mostly because it’s just so rare to see an unpolished odds-and-sods collection that works so well. There are a few throw-away tracks somewhere around here, disc one mostly outshines it’s less impressionable counterpart, and it’s the individual songs that really leave the lasting impression on the listener- not the odd, slightly disjointed feeling on incompletion one suffers when finishing a listen of the record as a whole. But essentially, when taken as what it is- a raw, untouched collection of semi-related sketches, it’s still clear that even at his most basic and unpolished, Elliott was worthy of the many colorful laurels thrust upon his name.
With New Moon
, the usually Elliott rules still seem to apply. All of the songs are like shy little creatures who need to be coaxed and revisited many times over before they really reveal just how intricate and beautiful they are. The weighty songs swagger in just the right way; the loftier woes drift down like a soft snow, just as they ought to. Yet as with all of Elliott Smith’s intensely heartfelt musings, one last odd quality seems to characterize his music. As obviously good as Elliott Smith is, he seems to falter and lose power in group settings. The full, beautiful, haunting effect his work can only truly be appreciated in listening in solitude- in the still darkness of an introspective hour.
May I suggest a midnight stroll?