Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Album Review: New Moon by Elliott Smith

When I first heard about new Moon, the "new" double-disc, posthumous Elliott Smith release titled, I was extremely apprehensive. I suppose you could blame the estates of everyone from 2Pac to Jeff Buckley for the fact that music from the grave has became an uncomfortable proposition.

Too many posthumous releases are ragtag affairs; full of bits and pieces and sketches of songs that are slapped together by music engineers and producers and weaved into albums. Not surprisingly, they often aren't very good. In fact, the best releases are often those that simply never came out in time, such as Biggie's Life After Death (totally finished and just weeks away from hitting stores when he died), 2Pac's Makaveli: The 7 Day Theory (almost completely finished), and Elliott Smith's own From a Basement on a Hill (in later, if fitful, stages of completion) were all albums that came from the artist's own imagination. And when you compare those Pac and Biggie works with the abominations that came later, it is obvious why another Smith release might terrify me.

The possibility of New Moon being total crap was one fear, certainly. The other worry was that the album would be overwrought with meaning. My only problem with fully enjoying A Basement is that I couldn't separate the songs from the context. I kept searching for clues that would resolve Smith's awful death. Was it a suicide, or was he murdered? The L.A. coroners couldn't figure out, and neither can we. His last work-in-progress provided a peak into his mind; a mind that had been increasingly drug-addled and depressed in recent years but seemed to be finding some hope at the very end of his life. With all of that investigative work to be done, it was hard too just absorb the music. Furthermore, the details and circumstances surrounding Smith's death - indeed, the tragedy of him as a figure - lent the album an almost overwhelming dose of gravitas. Frankly, I wasn't ready to go down that path again.

Have a painted a clear enough picture? I was concerned. I was not eager to buy this. New Moon gave me feelings of trepidation.

For all of these reasons, I am both pleased and surprised to tell you that this is my favorite release so far in 2007. Granted, there haven't been a ton of masterpieces to challenge for that title, but I loved the new ones from Bright Eyes, Arcade Fire, and Andrew Bird, and also enjoyed recent efforts from The Shins, Peter Bjorn and John, and Panda Bear. (And also, I must confess, Redman.) So there is enough good new music that I still feel like that statement means something.

Normally when I review an album, I drill down and tackle it almost song-by-song, but in this case, my feelings toward New Moon are more macro. That doesn't mean there aren't great individual songs, of course. "Angel in the Snow" gets things off to a great start and immediately brings to the forefront Smith's intimate recording style. By all accounts, he played extremely close to the microphone, which allowed him to sing quietly and make room for his chord progressions and the tiny little imperfections that came with them. Everything about a good Elliott Smith song is authentic and organic and that doesn't even account for the genius in the writing, bur rather comes about almost strictly from the brilliant technique that is on full display here.

Favorites abound. There is "High Times," which flashes Smith's energy and righteous anger. and "New Monkey," which shows his versatility as a songwriter and reveals frustrations over the way he (and indie music) was often portrayed. "Looking Over My Shoulder," "Whatever (Folk Song in C)," and "All Cleaned Out" put on display his almost irreconcilable wisdom and perspective. There are the brief glimpses of optimism ("First Timer"), the aching sadness on songs like "Georgia, Georgia," where he muses "oh man, what a plan, suicide," and, of course, those beautiful melodies that can't help but make you think of the Beatles.

Again though, drilling down on individual songs seems to miss the point. In fact, many of these gems have been floating around for years. I had seven of the 24 songs in my iTunes collection already, "Miss Misery" and "Pretty Mary K" are merely alternate versions, and "Thirteen" is a cover that Smith often played at life shows. So listening to this album in search of novelty or fresh tracks gets away from what makes it great.

New Moon is a fantastic album because it is comprised of 24 full, real, and terrific songs. It is adhesive and forms a narrative, and authentically feels like a release from the 1994-1997 period of time from which these songs were culled. And ultimately, that is the beauty of the record. It doesn't feel like a new Elliott Smith album at all. Instead, it is as if my collection of Smith albums suddenly has another classic imbedded in it. Right alongside masterpieces like his self-titled second album and Either/Or and XO is another classic.

So maybe calling it the best album of 2007 is a misnomer. It is more like the best album of 1996, preserved in a time capsule until today. Either way, it is fantastic stuff.

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