It’d be tragic if Elliott Smith became indie rock’s Tupac. After the initial excitement of a new, unreleased chapter had passed, From A Basement On The Hill felt alien. That won’t happen with New Moon: Its two-dozen spare, achy, candlelit songs, recorded between 1994-1997, are immediately at home with vintage Kill Rock Stars Smith, the period we’ve always liked best (apologies XO and Figure 8 maniacs).
Respect to Larry Crane, archivist of Smith’s estate, who handled and mixed the material with care?he rarely tweaks too noticeably (bumps in the night remain). It’s a pristine, profoundly human sound. As anyone who saw Smith play live knows, the last thing the guy needed was polish, so it’s a pleasure to listen to something as raw as the hushed midnight prayers of “Placeholder” (hear the intake of air toward the end?).
The unfortunately titled first “single,” “High Times,” which conjures a pack of hippies appraising sweet bud, is one of the denser tracks, though it’s not that dense. The liner notes (yes, tech notes!) point out that the drums are only “doubled snare (with the throw off loose) and ride cymbal.” Much of the collection’s even more skeletal (see closer “Half Right” or his straight-to-tape take on Big Star’s “Thirteen”).
Hardcore collectors own versions of some tracks via bootlegs, but even the president of the Elliott Smith fan club will find surprises like the superbly pop (entirely catchy), sunny-sad “All Cleaned Out” (“I saw you with your makeup runnin’ down / now what’s that all about? / You say you don’t want anyone around, because you’re all cleaned out…”) or the gorgeously fragile “Miss Misery,” sporting a different set of lyrics than the later version: “But it’s all right / because some enchanted night, I’ll be with you.” The list of highlights is as endless as two discs will allow: “Whatever (Folk Song In C),” “Go By,” etc.
After Smith’s death, it’s easy to read everything he ever did through that (still undetermined) final act. The breathtaking suddenly becomes heartbreaking. The strength of this release, the beauty of absorbing so many new angles, should go a long way to transcending those simplifications: Because for lack of a better word, New Moon feels very much alive.
New Moon is out 5/8 on Kill Rock Stars.