Elliott Smith died of two stab wounds to the chest in 2003. Whether it was murder or suicide, the verdict was inconclusive, and the world had lost a prolific, much-loved and Oscar-nominated songwriter. His final album, From A Basement On The Hill, was released a year later.
Following it now comes New Moon, a double-disc collection of demos, alternative versions and unreleased tracks recorded in 1994-1997, the prolific period that saw Smith’s self-titled debut and Either/Or released. Many of the tracks included here by producer and engineer Larry Crane were previously only available through file-sharing networks. This CD brings them to a wider audience for the first time, and it sounds like a complete album, and one with many highlights.
An early version of the Oscar-winning Miss Misery, from the Good Will Hunting soundtrack and XO, is amongst the better known tracks here. There’s also a version of the classic Pretty Mary K and the title track of Either/Or that never made it to the album, and they arrive as complete here as on their original release versions. Miss Misery’s lyrics are slightly altered, but there’s nothing about it that sounds demo-like. As the record progresses, we hear some tracks with more fragile production values, such as Talking To Mary and the poignant See You Later with its off-key vocal line, but this only adds to overall feel of something terribly delicate.
The 24 tracks included here mainly err on the quieter side of his previous output, such as the beautiful Going Nowhere, all multi-tracked vocals and intricately picked acoustic guitar, but there’s also plenty of room for upbeat numbers like Almost Over. And it’s these tracks that remind us that Smith was far from a one-trick pony when it came to his songwriting – his music’s variety was at least as captivating as his dextrous and exuberant fretboard fingerwork.
His lyrics are rarely cheery but often take several listens to comprehend. His multilayered approach to lyrical meaning, combined with his whispery, eggshell-fragile delivery, mean that close attention to each line is necessary, and rewarded. Lest we forget, Smith played piano and drums too, so while much of the record is comprised of acoustic guitar and vocals tracks, there’s a broad spread of instrumentation to break it up. High Times uses the simple trick of upping the drama ante by judicious use of cymbals – simple, but effective.
What we ultimately get with New Moon feels in part like a Best Of retrospective, but also in part a surreptitious and rather voyeuristic peek at Smith’s innermost workings and thoughts, without his say-so on whether we should be in such places. It makes for an album that Smith fans will find essential to buy, and the curious will find at least soporific. On this evidence, Smith’s work is unlikely to be forgotten any time soon.