Wild Mercury Sound

Elliott Smith's New Moon

John Mulvey

I'm just getting my head around the new Elliott Smith compilation, and there's a lot to take in. "New Moon" features 24 songs stretched over two CDs, dating from the mid '90s. Ostensibly, I guess they're demos; mostly Smith plus acoustic guitar recorded without fuss at a variety of basements in the Portland area. But the clarity and quality is obviously stronger. Like everything Smith released in his lifetime, these are stealthy, insidious songs that are worth living with.

What's immediately obvious is Smith's fecundity at the time. After a couple of listens, it's likely that most of these songs would hold their own on the "Elliott Smith" and "Either/Or" albums for which they were demoed. There are no revelations as such, no unexpected experiments in style. Instead, they compound our impression of Smith as one of the great songwriters of his time, whose simple and affecting strummed melodies mixed warmth, prettiness, unsettlingly quiet rage and an emotional intensity all the more potent for the casual, unmelodramatic way in which it was delivered.

I'm playing the album for the second time now, and virtually every song seems striking. "Looking Over My Shoulder" has that sort of offhand, McCartney-esque jauntiness at which Smith excelled, especially when he juxtaposes it with a clenched-teeth whisper about "another sick rock'n'roller acting like a dick." There's a great song called "Angel In The Snow", a skeletal take on "Miss Misery" - the song that he gave to the Good Will Hunting soundtrack, which made his name commercially, and which he then staunchly refused to play.

There's also a lovely version of Alex Chilton's "Thirteen", which reminds me of the first time he turned up in the UK just before "Either/Or" was released: a bunch of wonderful solo shows; interviewing him in some cafe off Tottenham Court Road, talking to this amiable and courteous man who gradually explained, through a series of hints and allusions, that he'd been recently incarcerated in a mental hospital. Significantly Joanna Bolme, who was caring for him on the trip, sat in on the interview. Looking back, her calm fortitude was awe-inspiring.

But Smith had that kind of charismatic vulnerability that encouraged people to look after him. It's obvious in his songs, in these ones as well. "What are you doing hanging out with me?" he sings in "Whatever (Folk Song In C)", one of his classic self-deprecating shrugs. Elsewhere, there are the usual allusions to drugs ("High Times", "New Monkey"), relationships ending, lives ending.

"New Moon" tells us little new about Smith, but it further justifies why we hold him in such high esteem. It also, perhaps, explains why he had to fatten up his sound for "XO" and "Figure 8". These seem to be unflinchingly fine songs, but you also get the sense that the tonal range he worked in was so narrow, he had to incorporate bigger arrangements to keep himself interested. He couldn't really escape being the introspective troubadour - I'm not sure he could write music any other way - but he needed to dress himself up in some bolder clothes for a while, at least.

Let me play this some more and get back to you. First, though, I'm off to South By Southwest in Texas next week, and I'll be blogging from the festival every day. Tomorrow, I'm going to try and put together a list of bands I'm looking forward to seeing; if anyone has any recommendations, please let me know. I saw over 50 bands there last year, and I'm keen to beat that score next week.


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