CD: Elliott Smith, New Moon

Ben Thompson on the late, sad-eyed troubadour who peaked before he was shortlisted for an Oscar, as these early gems reveal

This two-disc set of largely unheard recordings from Elliott Smith's 1995-97 heyday makes a far better swan song for the sadly deceased singer-songwriter than 2004's frazzled and scrappy From a Basement on the Hill. All too often, these posthumous compilations of previously discarded material leave you wishing that those responsible for putting them out could have exercised a bit more willpower. But these 24 songs (of which all but three are previously unreleased) rise up off the cutting-room floor with the woozy vigour of red admiral butterflies, newly awakened from hibernation.

Smith's trademark combination of breathy - almost whispered - vocals, deceptively resilient acoustic melodies, and sombrely introspective lyrics, is shown off to sufficiently good advantage here to make New Moon a worthy companion piece to 1995's Elliott Smith and 1997's Either/Or (the two excellent albums these tracks - including the latter's lost title song - didn't quite make it onto). Anyone, already familiar with this superior, pre-Oscar nomination phase of Smith's solo work will need no further incentive to seek New Moon out. But it's later converts, or those drawn in by a ghoulish fascination with Smith's grisly demise (he died in 2003 as a result of two - almost certainly self-inflicted - stab-wounds to the chest) who have the most to gain from the unmediated poignancy of 'Talking to Mary' or 'Whatever (Folk Song in C)'.

At the time he wrote these songs, Elliott Smith was just one of a number of marvellously talented US troubadours with which Domino Records (still a decade away from its current status as thriving nursery for homegrown Brit award winners) was valiantly striving to fill the gaping post-grunge void. A less original and striking lyricist than peers Bill 'Smog' Callahan or Will 'Palace' Oldham, Smith had a pop sensibility neither could match, and seemed to be reaching back beyond the legacy of Kurt Cobain to reconnect with the Beatles side of Nirvana's oft-celebrated Black Sabbath plus Lovable Moptops equation.

As it turned out, this broader appeal would be the end of Elliott Smith, dragging him out of his indier-than-thou comfort zone and, through his soundtrack songs for Good Will Hunting, into a bruising realm of Oscar telecasts and major label politics - a brave new world with which his already damaged psyche was ill-equipped to cope.

The melancholic impact of Smith's Prozac balladry has hardly been diminished by his grim subsequent descent into a narcotised abyss, and those on the look out for gloomy portents will certainly find them here ('Oh man what a plan - suicide!' he enthuses in disc two's upbeat opener 'Georgia Georgia'). But it's lovely to be reminded of a time when the ultimate surrender of this man's sublime talent to the dark forces within him did not seem entirely inevitable.

Download: 'Talking to Mary'; 'Whatever (Folk Song in C)'; 'Either/Or'


Ben Thompson

The GuardianTramp

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