Final albums are difficult to review. Posthumous albums are impossible.
The thing is, artists rarely know when they’re making their last statements. Time and tragedy can’t be predicted. Jeff Buckley had started work on his second album when he drowned, leaving only Grace as his legacy. George Harrison likely didn’t know while making Brainwashed that he was working on his swan song. The sense of finality is just not as prevalent in the work.
But posthumous albums, especially those cobbled together by family members and friends, are a different story. They are often, to me, like sifting through a dead man’s garbage, looking for change. I can’t help thinking while listening to these collections that the only reason I’m hearing these songs at all is that the author isn’t alive to stop me. It’s hard to know what someone like Frank Zappa would have wanted for his thousands of unreleased recordings. Would he have foisted rehearsal tapes like Joe’s Domage onto the public? Would John Lennon have okayed the surviving Beatles using his demos to construct “Real Love” and “Free as a Bird”? Who knows?
It’s hard to take these things as they are, and not surround them with emotion and suspicion. They are reminders of what we’ve lost, certainly, but they are also often collections of recordings deemed unfit for public consumption when the artist in question was alive. I can’t stop myself from thinking, should I be listening to this? Should I have this? Am I going against a dead man’s wishes by hearing this?
These are questions that can never be answered. To his credit, though, Jordan Zevon raises them in his eloquent liner notes to Preludes, the just-released collection of demos and unreleased recordings by his dad, Warren. He wonders whether he will receive a hug or an ass-kicking for this album when he sees his father in the afterlife, and concludes that he’ll probably get both. But at least he considered the question, and that makes me feel infinitely better about listening to this great collection.
Few artists faced death with as much grace and acceptance as Warren Zevon. Truth be told, mortality was always a central theme of Zevon’s work, and he treated it with a hard-edged cynicism obviously earned through years of tempting fate. When it finally caught up with him – Zevon was diagnosed with inoperable, asbestos-related lung cancer in 2002 – he didn’t collapse in a heap, but rather set about making one final record, one last chance at setting things in order.
That record was called The Wind, and it hit stores in August of 2003. Just over one week later, Zevon died, but not before he saw the birth of his twin grandsons, and got to experience having a top 20 album for the first time since 1980. It was a terrific, fitting finish to a career that had flown largely under the radar, and I’d have been perfectly happy to have The Wind as the last album in my Zevon stack.
That’s not to begrudge Preludes at all, though, because as posthumous collections go, this one’s fantastic. It was lovingly assembled by Jordan Zevon, and contains 10 early recordings of songs that later appeared on his albums, and six unreleased tunes, all of which are worth having.
More than half of the demos here are from his underrated self-titled album from 1976, and they include a rip-snorting take on “Poor Poor Pitiful Me” and a gorgeous closing piano run-through of “Desperadoes Under the Eaves.” The Zevon trademark of simple yet memorable melodies coupled with lyrics dosed in darkness is in place even this early on, a far cry from “Tule’s Blues,” a semi-sweet version of a ditty from Zevon’s forgotten 1969 debut, Wanted Dead or Alive.
Other highlights include a reggae-inflected, organ-fueled version of “Werewolves of London,” which manages the neat trick of getting me to listen to “Werewolves of London” again. I think it’s nearly criminal that Zevon is best known for this song, when his catalog is deeper and warmer than this knockoff novelty tune would suggest. Just listen to “Hasten Down the Wind,” here performed with little more than Zevon’s voice and piano, or the trio recording of “Accidentally Like a Martyr,” one of the darkest love songs ever written.
But it’s the unreleased songs that really shine. Preludes opens with “Empty Hearted Town,” a piano-based lament that ranks among Zevon’s best work. I’m not sure when this was recorded, or why it never grew into a fully produced album track, but it’s the kind of song that puts lie to the notion that Zevon’s work never had a heart. His catalog is full of songs like this, sad little stories finely drawn, and there are a couple more on Preludes, too, most notably “Stop Rainin’ Lord” and “The Rosarita Beach Café.”
Most revealing is “Studebaker,” a song that Jordan performed on the tribute album Enjoy Every Sandwich. Here is Warren Zevon’s only released run-through, and it’s obvious it’s an aborted take, a sketch intended to get an idea down on tape before it evaporates. Zevon plunks the song out, missing beats and obviously working through chord changes, and he abandons it halfway through. He would never finish this song, and the question it raises is this: was he wrong to toss it aside? Should we, as his audience, be granted glimpses at works in progress like this without his permission, and should we be given the choice to, in effect, tell Zevon he made a mistake? Is that our place as the listener?
Philosophical questions aside, Preludes is a fascinating glimpse at the work of an undervalued songwriter. It’s hard to be too sad about it – I miss Zevon and his music, but his work has such a hard, bitter edge to it that it effectively shuts you down before you can let it into your heart. The most touching and emotional thing here is on the second disc, basically an extended interview mixed with songs from Life’ll Kill Ya, including a solo acoustic performance of “Don’t Let Us Get Sick.” That song was written four years before Zevon knew he had cancer, and it’s a cutting and difficult listen now. It’s also lovely.
Should I care about whether Warren Zevon would have wanted me to hear these recordings? I don’t know. I jumped at the chance to hear them, one way or the other, just like I rushed out to buy New Moon, the new two-CD collection of unreleased songs by Elliott Smith. I suppose I consider the morality of these actions too late – whether Zevon and Smith would have given their permission or not, I’ve heard these records now, so all I can do is talk about how they’ve made me feel.
As you may expect, the Elliott Smith has hit me a lot harder. I consider him one of the finest songwriters of my generation, but that’s too simple a description. He was simply Elliott Smith – brilliant, troubled, with an uncanny gift for melody and a knack for expressing his own deepest despair, and making you feel it too. Smith killed himself in 2003, proving once and for all that all of that despair was real, but he left five full-length albums and one half-completed stunner in his wake.
That album, From a Basement on the Hill, was later finished by friends and released in 2004. I love it, but I also understand that it’s probably nothing like the album Smith would have released had he been around to oversee it. The same can be said of New Moon, assembled by his family and former record label, except there’s a difference: there’s nothing half-completed about any of these songs. Most of them are outtakes from the sessions that produced his third album, Either/Or, but any of them could have stood proudly on his early records.
Honestly, I can’t tell you how it feels to experience Elliott Smith songs I’ve never heard before – it’s just too much. My throat all but closed up at the opening strains of acoustic guitar on “Angel in the Snow” – has anyone before or since played guitar quite like Smith? And my God, what a song “Angel” is. Smith, in his brief life, never ran out of haunting, moving melodies, and New Moon’s 24 songs don’t break that streak. It’s like getting two extraordinary lost albums from him, and I can’t even express how grateful I am to have them.
While I question whether Warren Zevon would have wanted me to hear Preludes, my only question about New Moon is how Smith could have let these songs go. These are not outtakes, these are fully formed pieces – you could swap out New Moon’s first disc with Elliott Smith in the official discography with no drop in quality. “Go By” is an atmospheric wonder, “Looking Over My Shoulder” is good old acerbic Smith at his best, and “Going Nowhere” is one of his finest songs ever, a ghostly whisper of a thing that chills to the bone. And the early version of “Miss Misery” here doesn’t yet mention the title character by name, and it illustrates just how hard Smith worked on these songs, how much of a craftsman he was.
Everything here is, in one way or another, unspeakably beautiful, but some moments cut deeper than others. When he mentions suicide in “Georgia, Georgia,” the swell of emotions that surrounded me when I heard of Smith’s own untimely death come rushing back. And I have always loved his spare take on Big Star’s “Thirteen,” this set’s only cover – his voice, so thin and fragile, winding around Alex Chilton’s melody and making it Smith’s own.
But I honestly can’t objectively review New Moon. I can’t even subject it to the same criteria as other posthumous releases – I believe with all my heart, listening to this, that Smith was wrong to cast these songs aside, and that with this collection’s release, the world has been made right once more. These are songs to wrap yourself up in and love with everything you have. These are 24 more reminders of just what the world lost on October 21, 2003.
This is simply Elliott Smith, at his heartbreaking best.
And I miss him terribly.
See you in line Tuesday morning.