As big a fan of Elliot Smith as I am, I must confess that I rarely dig From a Basement on the Hill out of my stacks. It’s just too hard to listen to. Plenty of Smith’s music is emotionally jarring, yes, but knowing that Basement comes from the very end of his life, when demons he’d long struggled with finally subsumed him, makes the album almost unbearably sad.
So I was happy to find New Moon easier to take. Part of what makes the double-disc set so is that the songs come from an earlier time in Smith’s life, circa his 1995 self-titled album and 1997’s Either/Or. That period found Smith at the height of his bedroom-folk storytelling powers, before XO and Figure 8 had him following more baroque pop directions.
Not that there aren’t moments on New Moon where it’s impossible to separate Smith’s art from his too-short life. “High Times” doesn’t so much tug the heartstrings as take a serrated edge to them. Building up from typical voice and acoustic, the middle of the song is topped by searing guitar feedback, as Smith howls defiantly, “High times/ I feel fine.” Other references to substance abuse and suicide jump out of “Georgia, Georgia,” “All Cleaned Out,” “See You Later,” and “Half Right.”
But what makes New Moon succeed is something similar to what Shakespeare gets at in many of his sonnets: the ability of art to beat death. These songs, great to the last one, were deemed by Smith as not worthy of being on his albums.
Smith’s gorgeous cover of Big Star’s “Thirteen” perfectly sums up New Moon. The song is about the quick-burning flame of teen love. All things — life included — must pass. But it was beautiful while it lasted.