In some ways, the canonization of Elliott Smith makes perfect sense. Here was a “tortured” singer/songwriter whose career was just starting to catch fire when he took his own life less than four years ago. He had well-publicized struggles with alcohol and drugs, yet possessed a voice and a demeanor that made you want to take care of him, even if it meant you would get burned in the end.
Yet the release of New Moon, a collection of mostly unreleased Smith recordings taken mainly from the same sessions that spawned his two Kill Rock Stars albums (his 1995 self-titled release and 1997’s Either/Or), raises far too many questions than a two-disc set of outtakes could possibly answer.
Starting out, there’s the obvious question of whether Smith would have wanted these songs to see the light of day in the first place. This isn’t to say that there aren’t some gems to be found here, but there are other songs that were left off his solo discs for a reason. Take the catty “Looking Over My Shoulder,” for example. The music is lovely and lilting, but then Smith brings out his claws in the lyrics bemoaning, Another sick rock ‘n’ roller / acting like a d*** and all of your friends / and all their opinions / I don’t want to know. Then there are tracks like “Riot Coming” and “All Cleaned Out” that, while decent enough to warrant inclusion on this collection, sound tossed-off when put up against tracks as rich as “Between The Bars” or “St. Ides Heaven.”
Then there’s the question of what even the most die-hard Smith fans could hope to gain from this batch of songs. With the absence of tell-all biographies to try and shed further light on Smith’s troubled existence, it seems a little troubling to have people picking these tracks apart for clues and (heaven forbid) reasons for his dalliances with heroin and alcohol, as well as his bouts with depression. There certainly is grist for the mill on this collection. One of the best songs found here, “Big Decision,” is a punk-ish ode to trying to quit a drug habit, featuring lines like, No I’m not through with it yet / it’s a big decision / you can’t kick when you’re down.
Elsewhere, Smith talks about the struggles listening to the “New Monkey” on his back and whispering in his ear, and many of the other tracks are filled with the melancholy and loss of innocence that made his initial solo forays so bracing and heart wrenching. They are great songs, equals to his finest work, but will not be able to provide his fans with any answers they might be seeking.
Finally, there’s the obvious question of whether it is too soon for a posthumous closet cleaning like this. True, many of the songs on here were written and recorded more than 10 years ago, but it feels a little morbid to be trudging these songs out for mass consumption so soon after Smith’s death. His label’s intentions are well meaning enough (the majority of the proceeds of the sale of New Moon will benefit a Portland, Ore.-based organization that helps homeless youth), but there is still this sneaky feeling that KRS might be rushing the release of a collection this, knowing that it will sell very well. It is also worrisome that this could be the opening crack of the floodgate of archival material from Smith’s varied career hitting the shelves and download sites within the next few years.
Does that mean you should turn your back on New Moon? That’s not for this writer to suggest. You’ve probably already made your mind up about whether to buy these CDs or not long before you decided to read this review. But you should at the very least ask yourself what purpose these types of collections serve. Is it the interests of the artist and his/her legacy or the consumer interests of those folks who have control of that artist’s work now?
With a batch of songs as lovely and heartfelt as Smith’s it is certainly hard to tell. If nothing else, New Moon will make you wish that he were still around to help answer questions as difficult as these.