he 2003 CMJ Music Marathon officially commenced its bullshit on October 22. That year, just as with any other year, thousands upon thousands of musicians, “musicians,” radio programmers, “journalists,” label reps, distributors, fledgling music bloggers, and other assorted parasites descended upon New York for their annual circle jerk. This information isn’t exactly interesting or particularly relevant to anything, except that a day earlier Elliott Smith was pronounced dead.
With a community of people practically required to care about Elliott Smith heavily concentrated in one place, to say Smith’s passing cast a black cloud over the week would be accurate; everywhere you went you could overhear someone ask, “Did you hear about Elliott Smith?” A number of bands who performed that week took some time during their brief sets to pay tribute to the singer/songwriter, many of which he’d inspired, some of which were his friends. It was at once genuinely elegiac, beautifully sad, and sadly beautiful.
But to say Smith’s death sent a shockwave through this community simply wouldn’t be true. As news of his apparent suicide spread throughout the city everyone rightfully acknowledged it to be what it was: tragic, unnecessary, a darned shame, but virtually no one expressed anything approaching surprise. Elliott Smith’s death was as inevitable as it was heartbreaking: it was going to happen and it was going to happen soon; it just wasn’t scheduled.
When you die, you inherently waive some of your artistic inalienable rights. New Moon, a double-album collecting 24 (mostly) previously unreleased songs is the latest in what’s sure to be a series of Elliott Smith records that shouldn’t really exist. Perhaps one could enjoy this record as though Smith was still alive and oh well, OK, but New Moon exists because Elliott Smith is dead. And because Elliott Smith is dead his death is now permanently suffused through his entire catalogue; each lyric carries with it an echo, the search for some eerily prophetic forewarning of his inevitable fate. Granted, this is obviously an awful way to experience music, but is it really any different from how we used to listen to him?
The tracks collected for this compilation were recorded between 1994-1997, the same period that yielded Smith’s eponymous full-length and breakthrough Either/Or. The essence of both albums is captured throughout New Moon both in quality of songwriting and its production’s intimacy. You’d hardly expect songs as strong as these to be in anyone’s wastebasket, but with only a few exceptions the material assembled here is just as, if not more, intimate and honest as anything on those proper albums. Smith’s unique and organic approach to melody and lyricism is as evident on “new” tracks “First Timer” and “Angel in the Snow” (easily one of the most gorgeous songs in Smith’s catalogue regardless of release) as “Coming Up Roses” or “Say Yes.” As restrained rocker “New Monkey” and the frail “Talking to Mary” hold their own against “The Ballad of Big Nothing” and “Satellite” respectively, New Moon reveals Smith to be what we’d always suspected him to be: relentlessly inspired.
Still, that magnified melancholy, his gift, his curse, and his (alleged) ultimate undoing, is as linked to his music as those fragile double-tracked harmonies. On “New Disaster,” backed by his signature hushed fingerpicking, he sings, “The ghost of your smile is always looking for new bodies to haunt,” the frets beneath his fingers squeaking in anticipation of the next chord. But it’s these tiny moments that have always been what’s made Smith’s music so compelling, those fleeting traces of a smile behind the obvious sadness that inspired his songs.
The day after Elliott Smith died a hotly-tipped garage rockin’ Australian band who will remain nameless (rhymes with Jet) played the Coral Room in New York City. A pudgy Asian woman swam around an oversized fish tank, some guy who looked like Keanu Reeves adjusted his scarf, and placed on each table throughout the bar was the latest issue of Under the Radar. On the magazine’s cover was Smith. Its pages contained what would turn out to be the last interview he ever did, ironic considering the optimistic tone of the piece, which presented Smith as an admittedly troubled artist on the verge of a happiness that had until then eluded him.
So was he just lying? Did he just change his mind? Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. Within hours of his death Smith’s life and art had been completely recontextualized. Like that Under the Radar feature and From a Basement on a Hill, New Moon once again forces you to examine Smith through the prism of his death. But as he sings on “Either/Or,” “Sometimes I ricochet from the past / And at times a future I’ve already had before.” People were posthumously deifying Elliott Smith long before he was even dead; his music always sounded like he already was.
Reviewed by: Barry Schwartz
Reviewed on: 2007-05-29