After the release of From a Basement on the Hill, I assumed that would be it. I had accepted that there would be no more new material, and as sad as the occasion was, the release of Smith’s sixth and final album was an amazing send-off, an album that, though unfinished to some degree, featured some of his best material to date. Yet with saying goodbye to Smith came saying goodbye to hearing any potentially new material, and that, in itself, was an extremely hard fact to accept. There may have been talk of reissued albums with extra material, unreleased demos seeing the light of day, and things of that nature, and with artists whose time has come too soon, such as Jeff Buckley, Nick Drake or Kurt Cobain, the ongoing flood of unreleased material emerging only brings out the cynic in me. With Elliott Smith, however, my own personal relationship with his music tells me otherwise; I can’t help but want to hear as much as I possibly can. Thus, Kill Rock Stars’ 2-disc release New Moon comes as a generous and welcome blessing to fans like myself.
The majority of New Moon‘s tracks have, in fact, been traded from fan to fan for quite some time, so to some, this collection may not be nearly as novel. But there’s something comforting in hearing essentially two albums’ worth of material (which is mostly new to me, for what it’s worth), from an artist whose departure from this world left such a devastating impact. That some proceeds of the sale of the collection go toward Outside In, a Portland charity which benefits homeless youth in Portland, makes this release anything but a crass capitalization, and rather a heartfelt gift from family and friends involved in the project. As it is, it’s a stunning set of songs, beautiful and delicate, a reminder of Smith’s immense talent as a songwriter, not to mention his stellar finger-picked guitar playing.
New Moon, which contains 24 tracks spanning from 1994-1997, captures a peak era of Smith’s career in which just about everything he released was beautiful and magical, if a bit sad now and then. These, the tracks which never made it onto official albums for whatever reason, are, unsurprisingly, as affecting and just plain great as much of his album material. Leadoff track “Angel in the Snow,” which actually was released on a Yeti `zine compilation previously, is a prime example of the melodic, albeit lo-fi grace of early Smith solo material, his delicate voice providing the soft sentiment, “Don’t you know that I love you?” as he magnificently plucks away at his acoustic. Revealing the demo-like nature of many of these tracks, “Going Nowhere” sounds almost like a reprise of “Angel,” a whir of organ filling in the tiny space between Elliott’s voice and guitar. Though still minimal and simple, “All Cleaned Out” is more upbeat, melodically speaking, and a bit cleaner sounding, with some vocal similarities to “Bled White” from 1998’s XO.
New Moon contains several other familiar songs, though in different forms. Closing off the first disc is an early, acoustic version of “Miss Misery,” followed by a cover of Big Star’s “Thirteen,” both of which are simple and absolutely gorgeous. “Big Decision,” another track from an early compilation, arises on the second disc, as does an alternate version of Figure 8‘s “Pretty Mary K,” which seems almost a different song completely than the one that made it on to Smith’s fifth album. New Moon even includes a pair of Heatmiser songs, “See You Later” and “Half Right,” both of which appear on Mic City Sons in different forms.
Familiarity as comforting as it is, it doesn’t trump the excitement in hearing material like the dense, shimmering masterpiece “High Times,” the full-band, rocked out arrangement of standout “New Monkey,” or the bleak folk of “Georgia, Georgia.” Smith sounds sweet and breezy on “Whatever (Folk Song in C)”, while his voice is more emotive and quivering on “Placeholder.” And then there’s “New Disaster,” one of the lengthiest tracks, an epic and powerful track which builds into an immense and mesmerizing track, begging the question as to why it was left off of any album in the first place. The same goes for the fantastic “Seen How Things Are Hard,” which finds a magnificent melody backed by upbeat and insistent hand percussion.
As one might find on any of Elliott Smith’s albums, New Moon is a record painted in deep hues of melancholy. Yet those still digging for answers and insight into who he actually was might best be directed not to read between the lines, and to merely take solace in being able to hear more of what made so many love Elliott Smith in the first place. Though most discographical archeology digs can be a frustrating and jumbled mess, New Moon is a testament to Smith’s talent and enjoyment of making music. There’s not a bum note in the bunch, and for a set of songs that didn’t make the initial cut, that’s a nearly unparalleled phenomenon of its own.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.