I suppose that everyone has their own favorite tragically-dead, beautiful, terrible genius singer-songwriter. There are certainly enough to go around. But if Nazis had my parents and forced me to pick my all-time favorite, I’d have no problem telling them Elliott Smith. And if I had to pick an album, there’s no question—I’d pick Either/Or.
I first encountered Elliott Smith through my high school girlfriend. I think Smith would have appreciated that relationship—it was sweet, strange, beautiful, and ultimately, a total mismatch. That was ten years ago, and I’m a very different person now than I was then, particularly as far as my musical taste goes, but Elliott Smith has stuck with me, and I can’t imagine ever getting sick of Either/Or.
Those familiar with Elliott Smith’s catalogue will (I hope) agree that this album falls neatly into the perfectly balanced space between his simpler, acoustic work and the more aggressive and more complicated work he produced near the end of his life. It’s this album, too, that makes comparisons to Nick Drake
both inevitable and fair. Not since Drake’s Pink Moon
has a combination of quiet philosophy, fear of the world
, and delicate musicianship been so successfully constructed.
1997 was a strange and sad year for music—The Spice Girls and Celine Dion topped the charts while Soundgarden finally succumbed to its own inevitable implosion, Scott Weiland went back to rehab… again… and Alice in Chains announced that their hiatus would most likely be permanent (it was).
Actually, 1997 was a strange year, all around. Blame it on Hale-Bopp. Deep Blue defeated Kasparov. Hong Kong was returned to China, whereupon the Chinese government killed every chicken on the island (this actually happened). Princess Diana was paparazzied to death. Mir caught fire. Bill Berry quit R.E.M. after an onstage aneurysm. And I know I’m not the only one who shudders to remember that this was the year of Titanic.
Quietly into the midst of all this weirdness comes Elliott Smith with his third studio album Either/Or—an album at once easily listenable and full of meaning, simply constructed and intricately arranged, and as sharp and fragile as a cracked snifter. Oh, yes, let’s be clear about one thing:
ELLIOTT SMITH IS NOT A FOLK MUSICIAN. HE IS A ROCK MUSICIAN.
Originally coined as a term for the musical extension of folk lore, folk music in turn is intended to be simple (often involving only three or four chords), to be played and sung by anyone (thus “folk” as in “common folk”) in any setting. Often folk music is written primarily to compliment a poetic or lyric tale. The simplicity of folk music is intentional and has a poetic history dating back at least as far as recorded history. Although his songs often depict stories or vignettes of life, Elliott Smith did not write simple music. On this album in particular, it seems that Smith aimed at a balance between musical complexity and instrumentation, such that the larger the number of instruments in a piece (all of which are played by Smith), the simpler the song’s construction. Regarding composition, Smith said:
“I don't really think about it in terms of language, I think about it more like shapes. That's an interesting thing to talk about but it's difficult. I'm really into chord changes... I don't make up "a riff" really. It's usually like... that sequence that has some implied melody in it or something like that.”
Named for Søren Kierkegaard’s philosophic tract, Either/Or bounces from tender, quiet passion to deepest hopelessness to gotta-dance nihilism, all over the sweet strains of an acoustic guitar, punctuated by a variety of other instruments, all played by Smith. The album itself is notable for its widespread use of second-person omniscient narrative. “You” get a lot of walking, thinking, drinking, and awkward loving done in the brokedown world of Either/Or. There are a few tracks in which Elliott appears to speak from a genuine first-person perspective, however, and the listener will encounter a “she” whose apparent helplessness, bad attitude, and delicate splendor are reminiscent of Marla from Fight Club. Smith and Chuck Palahniuk both hail (if indirectly) from Portland. Maybe these girls are common in the American Northwest. There’s also a series of dark, even threatening “he” figures in the album.
There’s a serious essay in there somewhere—maybe someday.
“Speed Trials” makes for a great opening to this album, as it introduces the listener to Smith’s steel-blue darkness, understated instrumentation and gossamer vocals. It’s perhaps the simplest track on the album, and one of the more haunting on a pretty haunted album. For an interesting take on this tune, check out the cover by Knock-Knock.
“Alameda,” continues Elliott’s second-person narrative. This song as much as any I’ve heard transfers a sense of incredible loneliness onto the listener. By the end of the song, you may find yourself thinking “gee, I’m not a very nice person.” The lyrics are simple, carefully crafted, and absolutely heart-wrenching when heard in half-whispered melody:
Nobody broke your heart,
You broke your own, coz you can't finish what you start.
You walk down Alameda, brushing off the nightmare you wish
Could plague me when I'm awake
And now you see your first mistake
was thinking that you could relate.
For one or two minutes she liked you, but the fix is in.
“Ballad of Big Nothing” takes a pitch-black comedic view of life, and is the closest thing to true nihilism on the album. Futility takes a front seat on this tune, but I still find myself chuckling at lines like “the helpless little thing with the dirty mouth who’s always got something to say.”
“Between the Bars” is an unsettlingly direct and tender love song about excess and ruination. If Charles Bukowski wrote love songs and wasn’t such an asshole, he’d have written this song. It’s arguably the most heartwrenching song on the album, with themes of alcoholism, hopeless (but unrelenting) love, and desperate comfort. Passages like
People you’ve been before that you don’t want around anymore,
They push and shove and won’t bend to your will, I’ll keep them still.
Drink up, baby. Look at the stars. I’ll kiss you again between the bars
When I’m seeing you there with your hands in the air, waiting to finally be caught...
Never fail to make me a little misty. This song has been covered by a variety of artists, notably Metric and Madeleine Peyroux.
“Pictures of Me” seems to come directly from Elliott’s experience, and deals with Smith’s own reluctance to appear publicly and his own lack of self-esteem. Ironically, this is the most upbeat tune on the album—a real bouncy head-nodder.
“Rose Parade” could almost be “Pictures of Me” part two, with elements of misanthropy and apathy. It’s another humorous vignette that creates a very clear picture of a man uncomfortable around others and who up in a crowded space.
“Punch and Judy” begins in third person, then slips into the mind of “Punch,” apparently describing an awkward meeting between two ex-lovers who fall back together, perhaps because what’s familiar is comforting, perhaps simply because they’re “gonna make the same mistake twice.”
“Angeles” has been used in several movie soundtracks, including those for Good Will Hunting, The Girl Next Door, and Paranoid Park. Various meanings have been argued for this one, including Smith’s reluctance to “sell out,” his battles with drugs, or simply another look at hopeless love. No matter the meaning,
I could make you satisfied in anything you do.
All your secret wishes could right now be coming true,
and be forever with my poison arms around you.
Makes something in my spine tingle.
“Cupid’s Trick” is… well, tricky. Smith claimed that he wrote the song while on drugs and couldn’t remember what it was about. I personally have doubts about the veracity of that statement, but there’s a repeated line that’s caused some serious debate among Elliott Smith fans. The problem stems from the fact that Smith refused to put the lyrics to the song in the album booklet, and the debate centers on whether the line is “sugar, lick me up, it’s my lie,” OR “she would lift me up, it’s my life,” OR “should’ve lit me up, it’s my line.” Or some combination of the above. I will refrain here from throwing my hat in the interpretive ring. In any event, this is the most raucous track on the album, and really brings the whole experience to a nice peak.
“2:45 A. M.” deals with Smith’s drug use and desperation, but reactions to childhood abuse at the hands of his stepfather, a failed intervention attempt by his friends, and pressures of growing fame are also suggested. The real genius of this song is in the last fifty seconds of the song. I won’t ruin it for you. It gets me every time.
The final track of Either/Or, “Say Yes,” is one of those songs that makes every singer/songwriter in the world weep. We should all be so talented. “Say Yes” is the most stripped-down tune on the album, and bookends the album extremely well. It’s also one of the most lyrically touching songs in Smith’s extensive repertoire.
We broke up a month ago, and I grew up. I didn’t know I’d be around the morning after…
I could be another fool or an exception to the rule. You tell me the morning after.
Crooked spin can’t come to rest. I’m damaged bad at best.
She’ll decide what she wants…
See how it is: they want you or they don’t.
I’m in love with the world through the eyes of a girl who’s still around the morning after.
So why do this now, more than ten years after the album’s release, and five years after Elliott Smith’s death? Because the album has staying power, and because like Nick Drake, Smith is only now being recognized as a genius by a wide audience. Because memorial concert
s in his honor are still held all over the world. Because songs in tribute to Smith have been recorded by bands and artists ranging from Rilo Kiley
to Ben Folds
to Rhett Miller
. Because a decade of musicians have been influenced, guided, haunted, and inspired by his music. And because that girlfriend that bought me Either/Or ten years ago? She married a Philadelphia disc jockey, and they just had a son.
His name is Elliott.
This writeup also appears on altsounds.com, where I'm known by more of my full name.