By Simon Vozick-Levinson
May 25, 2007 at 04:00 AM EDT
Phil Knott/Corbis Outline
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Four years ago, Elliott Smith died at age 34 after battles with depression and substance abuse. The Portland-based singer-songwriter left behind a loyal fan base, five beautifully bleak solo CDs, and a wealth of unreleased material. New Moon, his second posthumous album (following 2004’s From a Basement on the Hill), collects 24 of those early recordings — and while archival compilations are often hit-or-miss, Moon‘s two cohesive CDs prove as emotionally powerful as anything in his catalog.

”Sometimes I feel like only a cold still life,” Smith confesses in the elegiac opener ”Angel in the Snow,” shrouding his whisper-soft vocals in spare acoustic chords. Two songs later, he’s lashing out — ”I’m so sick and tired of trying to change your mind/When it’s so easy to disconnect mine” — on the surging ”High Times.” The intensity of diverse performances like these, recorded between ’94 and ’97, would soon be rewarded. In 1998, his song from Good Will Hunting ”Miss Misery” (included here in a lovely, hushed rough-draft form) scored him an Oscar nod, while a deal with DreamWorks Records later that year nudged him deeper into the mainstream, stoking his potential.

Ultimately, it’s Smith’s tragic fate that looms over Moon, lending a bittersweet tinge to its deceivingly simple, cathartic tunes. Still, those mourning his loss can take heart knowing that the troubled troubadour has left us with one more masterpiece. A

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