May 8, 2007

Shortcut—Elliott Smith's New Moon

In 2003, Elliott Smith died of yet undetermined causes. His songs often placed his quiet, gentle voice beside melodies that seemed to come effortlessly to him. Elliott’s new album New Moon is a two-CD collection of rarities and covers recorded from 1994 to 1996 that reveal the rawness of Smith’s foray into music as well as the acquisition of a soft, lo-fi style—one that matched perfectly with his need to describe and express his difficult and painful life. Posthumous collections of left-over material are expected to offer something revelatory for the devoted listener, the chance to see the musician’s maturation into an artist. New Moon partly succeeds on this level, since the discs provide the opportunity to trace the progress of Smith’s technical and lyrical maturity. Although not as powerful or even as melodically enticing as his best work (Either/Or, XO), this album is a fine collection of Smith’s early songs.

The songs on New Moon were recorded in scattered studios, bars, and basements. Almost any of these songs could have been easily included on the albums he released from 1995 to 1997. Some tracks like the gorgeous “Looking Over My Shoulder” and the wonderful “Half Right” are great additions to listeners’ collections. They are imbued with the type of solid lyricism and melody that made his music so appealing despite its difficult content. The limitations of the studio environment in which the songs were conceived are often evident, although not detrimentally so. Technical perfection was never Smith’s goal. The intimacy he garnered through his music was partly a result of the rawness and imperfection of his recordings, which extolled emotion over technical virtuosity. New Moon successfully portrays this aspect of Smith’s style by abstaining from the unnecessary editing and “perfecting” of any of these songs.

It is difficult to recommend this album to someone not already acquainted with Elliott Smith. Almost all his other albums are far better introductions to his musical talent. New Moon is more appropriate for someone more immersed in Smith’s other work. For them it provides a new glimpse of another talented artist lost too soon.