It is easy to develop a complete obsession with an artist like Elliott Smith. In an all-too-brief period Smith released an exceptional and consistently intriguing catalogue of pop music. From delicate, acoustic folk, to retro-pop, to unstable, incomplete confessionals, he maintained a knack for brilliant melody and vocal styling that combined personality and professional range. Now it is also clear that Smith joins rank amongst the likes of Pavement or the Clash with a perfectionist ability to craft delightful “throw-away” tracks. Collections for artists of this caliber lend credence to a cliché; they are perhaps unable to write a bad song. Such would seem to be the case for Mr. Smith as presented by Exhibit A, New Moon, a collection of unreleased material.
Coming from the Kill Rock Stars label, this material essentially fleshes out the self-titled and Either/Or albums and it mostly makes sense in that context. It documents an interesting development. Smith, off the heels of Heatmiser’s power-pop delight Mic City Sons, abandons rock to re-learn basic song-craft. Then, by degrees, he builds back up musically with renewed vigor and disarming meticulousness, all in preparation for the big jump to Dreamworks and the full on Beatle-homage of XO. The sequencing is not entirely chronological but this breaks things up nicely and avoids playing like bonus tracks.
While the release is set out as a piece on its own, it is hard to listen to it without attaching songs to the albums they would seem to embellish. It’s also difficult to imagine anyone unfamiliar with Smith’s proper studio work seeking out this compilation. Yet, New Moon is certainly quality enough to invoke that enviable excitement of discovering Elliott Smith. There are no stale rehashes or diminished echoes of previous songs. The two alternate takes are radically different from the album tracks they accompany (in the case of “Pretty Mary K” sharing only a name).
Many of the earlier songs would have fit nicely, if unnecessarily, on the self-titled album. The first disc, first song, “Angel in the Snow” provides the hushed vocal and surprisingly full single guitar that were hallmarks of that sound. “Georgia, Georgia” and “Whatever (Standard Folk in C)” are likewise understandable omissions. They are exceedingly pretty, but maybe lack the aforementioned perfectionism of the greater statements Smith was crafting. “Whatever” uses a subtitle like a Heatmiser song, dismissing itself as mere exercise. While this may have passed muster for that band, on his own Smith was doing anything but killing time. And yet these songs occupy their marginal space happily. Though less serious than some of the final cuts they are top-notch exercises.
More glaring are a couple ominous tunes called “Riot Coming” and “High Times”. These affect the same template of the early solo music, but sound taut and threatening. Where “Needle in the Hay” built an eerie uneasiness over four minutes, these begin deceptively sweet and quickly switch into pained paranoia. Smith has a haunting way of straining his choral harmonies to create a tense subversion of the melody. In his relatively gentle sphere, this is as sneering and confrontational as Smith ever sounded. In “High Times” when he explains, “I’m so sick and tired, tryin’ to change your mind when it’s so easy to disconnect mine”, he is triumphantly resigned and adds melodious insult with the lashing chorus. He relishes the lie of “man I feel fine”. This is an almost frightening Smith, sounding genuinely unstable. There is much hand-wringing over the tragedy of Smith’s early death and it need not be added to. Not to be callous, but these things have an insidious way of overwhelming the musical importance of artists who die young. Suffice it to say that whatever his demons the man had moments of genius in channeling them.
Against the concentrated unease of these songs most everything sounds pleasant. Of course, this is the real draw of Smith. Reviews and analyses of Smith are quick to mention depression, drug use, and his suicide. While these are all sensational aspects of his life and work, it is surprising that the immense wonder in his songs is never mentioned. While he deals literally with melancholy, he is continually “coming up roses” musically. What elevates Smith from the dreary morass of weepy, singer-songwriter cliché more than anything is his paramount respect for pop music. There is a very fine line here and he often walked it. “All Cleaned Out” is another reason for Smith fans to scratch their heads over why he never had a real radio hit. He certainly had a talent for staying just this side of saccharine sweetness. But he never pandered, never strove for the hit but for the bittersweet resonance. What’s the difference? It is a fine line. It is subtle. It is the ghostly chorus harmonies of “Go By” which briefly evoke a transcendence in the entire song.
If that seems an esoteric or vague explanation, it may be. But this is vague space we inhabit trying to separate the good from the great in the popular sphere. Smith loved the Beatles and clearly imitated them, sometimes directly (see his strictly faithful cover of “Because”). One of the most important lessons he seems to have gleaned in his return to full-band pop is a sense of precision; the idea that the smallest addition or omission can make worlds of difference in a song. There is a clear sense of restraint in much of his work. How many Smith songs feature guitar solos? Even as he electrified and added drums and keys he sticks to a very modest, George Harrison style. Why play the solo when a single riff can add all you need to the melody? It is a supremely purposeful approach to rock songs. Thus Smith began to craft songs.
As such the Either/Or-era material is very interesting, finding Smith in different stages of “orchestrating” his material. “Miss Misery” is shown in stripped-down and slightly weirder form. Clearly Smith radio-friendly-ed this but the result was not distant or insincere, it was just much more interesting. “New Monkey” is a treat for anyone who had heard the murky leaked version. It is revitalized, clear as day with delightful harmonies and keyboard and drum fills. Smith adds a level of consciousness awareness to his art in the line “I’ll be pumpin’ out the product, just a total waste”. His joyful meticulousness cut with cynical, self-doubt. He is never shallow, never happy with surface dwelling.
And yet one of the most genuine and striking moments of this collection is a delicate and faithful cover of Big Star’s “Thirteen”. Smith loses none of the song’s innocent beauty in his one-man rendition. It is a track that has been long available to fans and it is still wholly affecting. When he gently intones “rock ‘n’ roll is here to stay” or asks whether the object of his affections would be “an outlaw for my love” it is enough to bring tears to the most jaded pop aficionado’s eyes. The world of American pop is so much better for Elliott Smith. Can any of us who consider this an important thing get enough?