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New Moon by Elliott Smith (Domino)

One of the finest songwriters of his generation died violently by his own hand in October 2003. Containing 24 songs, only three of which have had previous, limited releases, the material on this album was recorded between 1995-1997, during the period that yielded Elliott Smith’s self-titled, sophomore record, and Either/Or.

Usually, when a significant artist dies, the bin is scraped to cobble together a collection of alternative version and outtakes, in an effort to cash in. Although essentially a bunch of tidied-up demos, assembled and mixed by archivist Larry Carne, what’s extraordinary about New Moon is how good most of the stuff Smith had in the can was, some of it easily surpassing cuts that made it onto the aforementioned released albums.




Why did he hold back such quality material? Perhaps he felt uncomfortable at the thought of having to perform intensely raw and emotionally ravaged pieces like ‘Going Nowhere’, ‘Whatever (Folk Song in C)’ or ‘Seen How Things Are Hard’. Perhaps he didn’t want to draw more attention than was necessary to his various addictions, and so left off ‘High Times’, ‘New Monkey’, ‘Riot Coming’ and ‘First Timer’. Perhaps he thought of these songs as works-in-progress he could improve upon later. Whatever. As it stands, there are songs here among his detritus that beat many a songsmith’s most popular tunes into a corked hat. Even the one cover version is a daring but well-executed choice, Alex Chiltern’s ‘Thirteen’, a song so great it can break your heart in less than two minutes, no matter how many times you hear it. A literal reading, to be sure, but best not try to improve on perfection.

Sometimes dismissed (or praised) as ‘folk music for junkies’, Smith was a kind of acoustic Kurt Cobain – although even this comparison falls short when one considers the more fulsome electric arrangements on subsequent Smith albums, XO and Figure 8, nevermind Nirvana’s reworking of their own grungy blasters on their Unplugged offering.

And the title? Apparently, it’s because Smith liked walking around at night, which was when he got his best ideas. If only he was still with us. For, great as he was, at only 34 he surely had a lot more to offer. Let’s hope he’s gone to a better place, and raise a glass to an absent friend.

First published in Magill, July/August 2007.














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