Double-disc collection documents genius and self-destruction
One day in the late 1990s, not long after his sublime performance of “Miss Misery”
in between the bombast of Celine Dion and bravado of Michael Bolton at the 1998 Academy Awards ceremony, Elliott Smith ambled into MTV Networks for an appearance on one of the channel’s daily shows. I was head of music editorial at the time and went to meet the shy singer/songwriter in the green room for a chat about the kinds of questions he might be asked. He was nervous, fidgety, withdrawn, and he wore it all on his sleeve as he sat through one of the more awkward interviews I’d ever seen on celeb TV. It was also one of the more honest ones. It was clear to me that Smith would rather have been anywhere in the world that day than trapped in the tangled web of multicolored MTV sets. Like Brian Wilson a generation earlier, Elliott Smith just wasn’t made for those times.
One reason could be that Smith’s music is timeless. And the 24 demos, outtakes and radio sessions that make up New Moon prove that. Anyone looking to this collection for extra insight into the Elliott Smith psyche—or into the mysterious circumstances surrounding his stabbing death four years ago—will be disappointed. These tracks don’t shed any more light onto Smith’s psychology than do the songs from his first two albums for Kill Rock Stars, Elliott Smith and Either/Or. After all, Smith came out of the gate with lyrics that let us in on his loneliness and depression, his struggles with drugs and alcohol and his relationship problems. What these unearthed gems do shed light on is the depth of Smith’s songwriting gift during his most fertile years, 1995-1997.
Before “Miss Misery” turned the songwriter with the delicate, whispery voice into a mainstream curiosity, Smith was just another child of the early ’90s, a troubled soul exorcising his demons in sadly sweet melodies and prickly, self-deprecating lyrics. He was one among many such post-punk singer/songwriters of the period—Kurt Cobain, Lou Barlow, Lisa Germano, Vic Chesnutt—who chose to work through difficult issues in their heartbreakingly confessional lyrics. In terms of sheer songcraft, Smith was arguably the best of them all. You can hear it in this collection in the skeletal versions of songs such as “Misery” and “See You Later” (recorded by his early-’90s band, Heatmiser) as well as
previously unreleased tracks like the sweet, simple opener, “Angel in the Snow.”
Disc 1 includes material Smith wrote around the time of his first KRS album. It’s mostly just Smith strumming his guitar and singing of drug addiction and expressing fears of abandonment. In “High Times”—covered last year by his ex-roommate, Sean Croghan, on the tribute disc To: Elliott From: Portland—Smith sings of wandering around the city looking for a fix. In “New Monkey,” he characterizes his addiction (or his dealer) as a nag who’s always inside his head wanting him to “live in denial,” telling him he’s a “study in black.” And in “Talking to Mary,” the lyrics indicate he’s sure she’s figured him out and will leave him. “She can hear what you’re thinking, like you were saying it right out loud / She sees behind that dirty look,” he sings, before eventually launching into the refrain, “One day she’ll go, I told you so.” As on any of his albums, the melodies and Smith’s gentle, often deceptively simple vocal arrangements belie the lyrical darts he throws. In “Looking Over My Shoulder,” for example, the music and vocals are sweet as honey as he spits out the line, “Wiped out in the city slick / Another sick rock ’n’ roller acting like a dick.” The first disc ends with an achingly beautiful take on Big Star’s “Thirteen,” a spare beauty Smith easily could’ve written himself.
After 12 songs that plow over Smith’s problems gracefully but unswervingly, like a four-wheeler with good shock absorbers, it’s hard to tell what Disc 2 could offer that the first disc hasn’t already covered. The first track gives a clue. “Georgia, Georgia” trades the gentle, consistent strumming for more of an Appalachian folk feel, and it’s followed by two more trad-sounding weepers, “Whatever” and “Big Decision.” But the content of the songs remains the same: The protagonist hates himself, he hates what drugs have done to him, and he hates the way people come and go in his life. If anything, the self-deprecation in these songs—recorded around the time of Either/Or with an expanded palette of instruments and vocals—has worsened. In “Big Decision,” he concedes, “You know I won’t stay sober,” and in “Placeholder,” he compares his fleeting time in peoples’ lives to a 45-rpm single, singing, “I’m the person you’ll never need / The biggest loser on Sixteenth Street / The invisible man with the see-through mind.” As he further isolates himself, the lyrics become less and less inviting. In “Seen How Things are Hard,” he sings of using all of one’s strength “to keep the world at an arm’s length.”
Interestingly, the last few songs are among the brightest and the best. The song “Either/Or,” which had been scrapped from the album of the same name, finds Smith singing with vigor over an almost-gospel-like organ part about posers who are either strong or stubborn, brave or bored. The best song of the collection is a total remake of a previously released tune, “Pretty Mary K,” about a guy who falls in love with a prostitute. The original, from his figure 8 album, sounds like Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys. But the absolutely exquisite version here, with different lyrics and a different melody, comes off more like Simon & Garfunkel.
For diehard Elliott Smith fans, New Moon is an absolute must, as it compiles songs that, for the most part, reinforce his reputation as one of the finest songwriters of his generation. For those who came to Smith after “Miss Misery,” this collection is likely too much—too depressing, too navel-gazing, too saddled with self-doubt and drug abuse. For remaining listeners, it's merely instructive, sublime in parts but not solid enough or surprising enough or interesting enough, musically, to merit multiple listens.