Some have trumpeted Elliott Smith's fifth long player - belatedly released as a gorgeous 180 gram double vinyl pressing by the good folk at American indie Bong Load - as some kind of triumphant creative rebirth, wherein his trademark crumpled bedsit balladeering dons a cloak of "White Album"-style eclecticism. I'm unconvinced, however: there used to be something comforting about old school Elliot Smith albums, as typified by the excellent "XO", all impenetrable lyrics about loss and regret and any time signature you like as long as it's a waltz. Here the lyrical allusions and references to things real and tangible - the original serial killer Son of Sam, colour bars, actor Bruno S. - only seem to further obfuscate any semblance of meaning these songs might have to anyone other than their author, and the rangy new music that accompanies them, which I would inadequately describe as convoluted pop, doesn't seem to be as solid or memorable his previous efforts. "Figure 8" is no disaster area - it's a perfectly competent modern singer/songwriter album, and racks ahead of the coffee-table cluttering likes of David Gray - but there's nothing headspinningly, gobsmackingly great here: as its title suggests, it's an album that just seems to keep going round in circles.
ELLIOTT SMITH Elliott Smith (Kill Rock Stars)
The cover image of Elliot Smiths second album, originally released in 1995, with the benefit of hindsight, unnerves from at least two different directions. An illustration of bodies plummeting from buildings, it carries even greater weight in the light of both September 11 and Smiths own wasteful suicide.
Inevitably, tragedy hangs heavy over the music that image enfolds. The album plays like a back alley opera, the glinting promise of youth slowed and sacked by chemical dependency. Like Art Garfunkel working his way through the Lou Reed songbook, debauched choirboy vocals and chiming acoustic guitars pick over tales from the underbelly of the underground. Needle In The Hay, for example, could be Im Waiting For The Man unplugged and wired.
Time and again Smiths songs seem to shrink from themselves and himself. Lines like I been out haunting the neighborhood and I wouldnt need a hero if I wasnt such a zero linger longer than the spindly melodies that accompany them. Its hard to avoid thinking of Elliott Smith in terms of Radiohead song titles Exit Music and How To Disappear Completely spring inevitably to mind but the characters who haunt these songs, and the singer who created (lived?) them seem as though theyre just passing through life, restless only for somewhere safer and more comforting.
ELLIOTT SMITH New Moon (Domino)
A posthumous compilation of outtakes and alternate versions recorded during Smiths three year tenure on the Kill Rock Stars label, it really does take time to fully appreciate this double album. Initially these 24 tracks might seem samey and oppressively dreary, but heavy rotation reveals each one to be a perfectly-crafted miniature, an almost nonchalant melodic facility seeping through the gloom. Think Lennon and McCartney meeting Mark Eitzel, perhaps, an introverted, unplugged Elvis Costello or a golden-ratio amalgam of Pink Moon and The Velvet Underground.
These were the songs he dismissed, remember; its astonishing that something as complete as, ooh, High Times, say, was unreleased at the time. Maybe its the bulk of New Moon thats off-putting, although its a problem that Domino have partially ameliorated on the CD version by packaging the album as two discs, even though its an easy fit on one. Had these discs been issued individually at the time they were recorded they might be less forbidding still. Brilliant as these performances often are, its the kind of set that you really need a half-time break from.
These songs are generally so sparsely arranged that even the rudimentary rock band arrangements of New Monkey and Fear City explode from the speakers in Sgt. Pepper-style Technicolor. (An apposite comparison, as it happens: the track annotations occasionally ascribe those simple arrangements to the limitations of the eight-track machinery used to capture them, pretty much the same once-envelope-pushing technology on which the Beatles album was taped.) Nevertheless, songs such as Riot Coming manage a real sense of scale and dynamics, abetted by Smiths standard practice of double-tracking his voice and guitar. And even these lo-fi recordings are pretty hi-fi, as the rattle and buzz of guitar strings on All Cleaned Out attests. Miss Misery, a later version of which propagated Smiths move to the mainstream when it appeared on the Good Will Hunting soundtrack, is like American Music Club at their bleakest, all realistic hope of redemption crushed out of it. Thirteen is probably the albums most initially appealing moment, although Im predisposed towards it as its a Big Star cover. Georgia, Georgias melody and bitter, sharp tone are eerily reminiscent of Paul Simons Patterns, and a similar 60s folk club feel pervades Whatever (Folk Song In C), which can probably trace its roots back to those of Bob Dylans Suze (The Cough Song). Big Decision is about as punk rock as an acoustic guitar gets, within its limits pummelling fiercely like early Hüsker Dü, and sleighbells lend Seen How Things Are Hard an urgent exuberance that belies its title. Half Right, on the other hand, is almost classical in its construction, melodically indebted to Satie.
So, New Moon isnt a welcoming listen, and a glance through Christopher ORileys track-by-track commentary in the sleevenotes wont render it less so, with its talk of a most ambiguous G7 chord and momentary Debussyian musing. Fortunately, given time, the music speaks for itself.