Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Haunting Voices: Elliott Smith's New Moon

Posthumous albums are almost always difficult to approach. There’s no way of knowing whether they reflect the artist’s intentions accurately – presumably there were always good reasons why tracks remained unreleased (unless the artist in question was as poor a judge of their own output as Bob Dylan was throughout the ‘80s). There’s also the thornier problem of ‘cashing-in’ – just who stands to gain from the endless Jeff Buckley live albums or ghastly 2Pac cast-offs?

When an artist dies in as dramatic and frankly macabre a way as Elliott Smith (Smith committed suicicide by stabbing himself in the heart), there’s the additional temptation to search for some bleak, comfortless worldview that might help explain the artist’s state of mind. Many people will approach Elliott Smith’s ‘New Moon’ from a strictly psychological viewpoint, but this will achieve little, and also misses the warmth and romantic vulnerability that lay alongside Smith’s angst and depression.

There’s already been one posthumous Elliott Smith release – ‘From A Basement on A Hill’ – due to have been a planned double album but never quite completed. Some find this album challenging and uncomfortable – but I rather admire its uneasy combination of sludgy rock and melancholy melodies. It combines the brutal with the unfathomably pretty in a way not many musicians could pull off.

‘New Moon’ is less confrontational, and takes a while to reveal its qualities. Its compilers are keen to emphasise that it is not an odds-and-sods collection, but rather represents a possible alternative canon to Smith’s back catalogue, drawn as it is exclusively from the sessions that produced Smith’s spare acoustic masterpieces ‘Elliott Smith’ and ‘Either/Or’.

Concerns over the value of ‘New Moon’ are mercifully alleviated pretty quickly, and there’s plenty of evidence of Smith’s subtle talents here, especially on the first disc. The trademark Smith sound helps this collection cohere – most tracks deploy the double tracking of vocals that Smith preferred, although this sometimes serves to emphasise his tremulous vulnerability rather than disguise it. There are some masterful moments, including the languid, melancholy ‘Go By’ which develops effectively through the layered multi-tracking of Smith’s vocal lines. ‘Angel in the Snow’ demonstrates Smith’s inventive harmonic sensibility, as well as his nimble guitar playing, rarely remarked upon in reviews.

Best of all is the infectious, touching ‘All Cleaned Out’. Where some of the songs in this set risk highlighting the more world-weary, profane dimensions of Smith’s lyric writing, ‘All Cleaned Out’ risks a more poetic approach, and suggests that Smith was at his best when combining barbed and cynical observations with a more playful quality. It has a great opening line (‘Here comes your pride and joy – the comic little drunk you call your boy’) and continues to exhibit Smith’s canny turn of phrase (‘Wearing clothes that clash/Wondering whether this is treasure or it’s trash…’).

The second disc is a little less immediate, and requires a little work. The most obvious delight is the charming ‘Whatever (Folk Song in C)’, with Smith at his most lush, with a McCartney-esque melodic flourish. The rest are more elusive, although I like the dusty, mysterious ‘New Disaster’ and the outstanding ‘Either/Or’, oddly missed off the album of the same name.

There are a handful of tracks which feature more of a ‘band’ sound, and they feel a little out of place on this otherwise spare collection. ‘New Monkey’ and ‘Fear City’ are both uncharacteristically evasive on melody and sound a little aggressive. Both seem to be in search of clear direction.

Some of the tracks might feel superfluous to all but the most ardent of collectors – there are alternate versions of ‘Pretty Mary K’ and ‘Miss Misery’ (the song from the Good Will Hunting soundtrack that brought Smith to wider recognition, included here with radically different lyrics). There’s also a cover of Alex Chilton’s ‘Thirteen’ which initially seems slavishly faithful. Listen closely, though, and the very essence of Smith’s come through. Where the Big Star original was innocent and nostalgic, Smith’s delivery quivers, and implies sadness, melancholy and regret, as if nothing in life can ever compete with the residual warmth of first love. It’s a beautifully intimate moment – and a reminder that Smith had an extraordinary ability for individual communication. At his best here, the unadorned arrangements genuinely capture not just the sound, but the feeling of a man alone in a room – singing directly to a single listener.

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