Elliott Smith and Kurt Cobain were the great incorruptible rock artists of the nineties. They shared the mentality of outsiders, and refused to give it up even as their fame and talent earned them status as insiders. When Cobain killed himself in 1994, Smith was just emerging as a solo artist, a songwriter who used an acoustic guitar and sweet, aching melodies to convey resentment and self-loathing every bit as acute as Cobain’s. Smith died at the age of 34 in 2003 of a stabbing that may have been self-inflicted—the Los Angeles coroner’s office has never reached a conclusive determination—and thus began his posthumous career. The album he was struggling to make at the time of his death, From a Basement on the Hill, came out the following year; New Moon, out next week, offers up 24 tracks, all but three of which have never been released, recorded from 1994 to 1997, the sweet spot of his career.
Smith was a slippery figure. A graduate of Hampshire College, he returned in 1991 to Portland, Oregon, the closest thing he had to a hometown. This was the Great Slacker Era, and Smith had the lifestyle down. He wore a wool knit cap even in warm weather, showered infrequently, steered clear of office jobs, and played in a grunge band. He affected the demeanor of a diffident young soul only too happy to let the bullshit world rush past him.
Meanwhile, though, he was quietly making his first solo album, Roman Candle, in his girlfriend’s basement, recording it with a crappy Radio Shack microphone (“I was a big chicken about playing the kind of music that I really liked for a really long time,” he once told this magazine). They were simple tunes, but they had been painstakingly composed. Larry Crane, a friend of Smith’s from Portland who now serves as the archivist for his estate, says that among the tapes he’s heard are recordings Smith made in high school. “It was pretty ordinary stuff,” Crane says. “You didn’t necessarily hear the songwriting genius that you’d hear later. There’s a lot of people who can toss off something inspired if you catch them at the right moment. But Elliott didn’t get by like that. He put in a lot of hard work.”
That work ethic would result in five solo albums before Smith died. The first four were beautiful, sad works of fastidious clarity; the fifth, Figure 8, started to lose that unerring sense of control, then came Basement, which many critics ranked with his best work. I was astonished by this, and wondered if maybe people were responding more to their own grief than the music. To me, it sounded messy and distracted, an unfortunate swan song.
So the news that his old record label, Kill Rock Stars, would be issuing Smith’s second posthumous record did not inspire much confidence. Yes, they were from an earlier, more productive period of Smith’s life, but c’mon, 24 tracks? Who asked for this? An archival dump of such magnitude risked turning Smith into another Tupac or Jeff Buckley, artists whose reputations have been sullied by reams of posthumous releases that ought to have been left in the vault.
So what a lovely surprise it was to hear New Moon for the first time and be immediately wowed by the power and elegance of the material. There is nothing tentative or unpolished about any of these songs. Produced as part of the sessions for his self-titled second album and Either/Or, his third, most would have fit pretty well on both. Included is a haunting, perhaps overly deferential cover of Big Star’s “Thirteen,” which Smith regularly played in his live shows, and an uncharacteristically up-tempo tune called “New Monkey” that caustically mocks indie scenesters and suggests he didn’t much appreciate being pigeonholed as a junkie just because he walked around in a state of self-absorption. On “Georgia, Georgia,” the sentiments get significantly darker when he remarks, “Oh man, what a plan, suicide.”
One of the little things you hear over and over on New Moon is the slither of Smith’s fingers brushing against the guitar strings as he changes chord positions. Imperfections like this are often fetishized by producers eager to lend authenticity to singer-songwriters who don’t automatically convey it, but in Smith’s case, they weren’t an affectation. He recorded his music extremely closely—it sometimes sounds as if he’s swallowing the microphone—which allowed him to sing and play guitar quite softly. This is not a novel technique; Bruce Springsteen does it a fair amount on his quieter material. But Smith made it the defining feature of his sound. And what that does, combined with the informal, conversational ease of lyrics (one of my personal favorites: “I may not seem quite right / But I’m not fucked, not quite”), is lend his music a sense not only of intimacy but of empathy. Which saves his music from being merely maudlin. Well, that and his knack for writing melodies that merit the cliché of being compared to the Beatles.