Twenty Years Later – Elliott Smith’s Either/Or

by: Michael Shields

Across the Margin commemorates the album that catapulted Elliott Smith into the limelight, Either/Or, on its twentieth anniversary…


Elliott Smith is a wonderment. His unique and deeply affecting brand of lo-fi indie rock has an intriguing power and his introspective lyricism embodies the anguish that so often accompanies life. But his music is curiously empowering too. Within the third track (“Ballad of Big Nothing”) off of his third album, Either/Or, released February 25th 1997, Smith confidently croons, “You can do what you want to whenever you want to. You can do what you want to, there’s no one to stop you,” hinting at the unstoppable force pulsating within each of us. Yet at the the same time, Smith’s lyrics can be sobering and utterly humbling, as later in “Ballad of Big Nothing” we are reminded of our utter insignificance when he further wails, “do what you want to whenever you want to…though it doesn’t mean a thing.” Such is the conundrum that is Elliott Smith, an artist with a catalog of songs that are served with a gentle whisper, yet pack the emotional punch of an atomic bomb. And there is no album that better exhibits Smith’s ability to delicately yet emphatically break hearts than Either/Or. Although Elliot Smith became a darling of the indie rock scene with the release of his first two albums, 1994’s propitious Roman Candle and 1995’s breathtaking, self-titled effort, it wasn’t until Smith released Either/Or, twenty years ago today, that his legend became cemented in stone.

Either/Or wasn’t an emphatic departure from Smith’s two solo releases that preceded it, but it did hint at a broadening of scope. Employing the use of a multitude of instruments, from drums to harmonica and organ to cello (all of which he plays himself!), the album’s sound is more lush and rich than his previous recordings, and this newfound ambition displayed an evolution of Smith’s music while remaining steadfast to his signature sound and his personal and pensive lyricism. Elliott Smith was always a deeply meditative and conflicted person, and throughout each song on Either/Or he confronts the demons that haunted him, reflecting deeply on failed relationships, the perils of stardom, and the unrelenting pull of addiction. Either/Or is as personal, and as human an album that any songwriter of Smith’s ilk has ever released. It was a defining album for the artist and to this day remains an unflinching glimpse into the heart of a human who wore his vulnerability on his sleeve, and in doing so, emboldened us all.

“Speed trials” commences Either/Or with an urgency, and in its purposeful melodic bliss lies contemplations about wading outside your comfort zone (“You’re such a pinball yeah you know it’s true / There’s always something you come back running to / To follow the path of no resistance”) and its momentum flows flawlessly into the subtle sweetness of “Alameda.” “Alameda” is a voyeuristic journey, one where your head lays low, “looking at the cracks in the sidewalk” consumed by your own thoughts. It’s a song where Elliot Smith takes accountability for his hurt. “Nobody broke your heart, you broke your own,” he laments. The song is suggestive, professing that you control the people you choose to surround yourself with (“if you’re alone it must be you who wants to be apart”), an idea that forces one to wonder how much pain is self-inflicted, and how often loneliness can be self-imposed.

“Behind the Bars,” is a stirring adult lullaby that ushers in revelry, professing “Drink up baby / Stay up all night / With the things you could do / You won’t but you might / The potential you’ll be that you’ll never see / The promises you’ll only make.” There are few song capable of moving one to dramatically down their pains deep in the depths of a bottle like “Behind the Bars,” burning your remaining bridges as you sink slowly, resplendent in the pain of self-abandonment. Fortuitously, there exists a jolt of sobriety found in the swinging swagger of “Pictures of Me,” where Smith condemns his burgeoning fame in stunningly poignant imagery (“Jailer who sells personal hells / Who’d like to see me down on my fucking knees / Everybody’s dying just to get the disease”).

“No Name Number 5,” one of the most enduring songs on Either/Or, is welcome musical pacification. It’s reassuring in a way that only Smith is acutely capable of, where he lets you know that things are fucked up, but that’s entirely okay. “There’s nothing wrong…that wasn’t wrong before,” he sings reassuringly. Surprisingly uplifting, the sultry subtle thematics of “No Name Number 5” are covertly proud, a defining feature of so much of Elliott Smith’s work. Life, and so many of the relationships that shape it, are broken he seems to be saying, but you didn’t break it, and it never stood a chance anyways. It was meant to be broken, but again, that’s okay.

The tail end of Either/Or is potent and exemplifies why this album is so damn special as it doesn’t lose a puff of steam sliding into its conclusion. “Angeles,” finds Smith in unmitigated conflict about his place in the record industry and in life in general, an industry and world where “Someone’s always coming around here / Trailing some new kill.” “Cupid’s Trick” has a sumptuous, full soundscape that is indicative of Smith’s expanding capabilities as he grew as an artist. It’s boisterous and somewhat in your face, a shot of caffeine that wears off abruptly with ”2:45am,” “2:45am” is, in some ways, a sister song to Wilco’s “Shot in the Arm” that speaks of a time where “the ashtray says, we’ve been up all night.” It’s about the late hours that feel so right at the time, but that prove fruitless and ruinous in hindsight. Either/Or’s closing track, “Say Yes” is a fitting cessation to such a deeply affecting piece of art in that it leaves you with an underlying level of hope, a capability that I believe Elliot Smith doesn’t get enough credit for. It’s a song I play for people when I am afforded the opportunity to introduce Elliot Smith to them, as it’s well-defining of who he is. The rhythm is upbeat, and the message is eager and fun (“I fell in love with a girl, who was still around the morning after” – who would have thought!), but it also exemplifies Elliot Smith’s skepticism, and his distrust in moments of mirth as he seems to understand the uncertainty that lingers when good things happen to you, and you aren’t quite sure if you deserve them. Anyone who has been touched with a bit of luck or fortune they weren’t sure if they earned can relate to this idea.

I have often mused about the idea of the ‘one before the one.’ That is, that thing in life that serves as the setup for that next, more meaningful something. That job you had that was the stepping stone to that position you have always dreamed of. Or the significant other who wasn’t legitimately “the one,” but with that person you grew and learned, and found yourself in the wake of the relationship more ready for a true life partner than ever before. In many ways, to me, Either/Or was that ‘one before the one,’ as what was to follow was the absolutely astounding, album XO (more on that in 2018, on its 20th anniversary!). This is not to say that Either/Or isn’t a significant accomplishment on its own, far from it. Many ardent fans hail the album as Smith’s crowning achievement and appropriately so. But it is inarguable that Either/Or was the album that propelled Smith’s career to new heights, and this had a little something to do with a filmmaker who found Elliott Smith’s artistry enchanting.

Either/Or, while hailed by critics and indie rock fans alike, still found Elliott Smith’s music lurking in the shadows until director Gus Van Sant took to Elliott Smith’s virtuosity, and claimed three of Either/Or’s songs for his film Good Will Hunting, propelling Smith into the international spotlight. Gus Van Sant commissioned the songs “Say Yes,” “Angeles” and “Between The Bars” for the film, plus he asked Smith to pen an additional song just for the film. What was borne of that request was “Miss Misery,” a masterfully written song that was nominated for an Oscar, ultimately losing out to Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On.” As that exposure settled over Smith, DreamWorks Records, a subsidiary of the film company, recruited him for the next phases of his career, and the rest was history…

Unbeknownst to most, Elliott Smith’s real name was Steven Paul Smith. He was ( according to Wikipedia) “born in Omaha and grew up in Dallas and in Portland, Oregon. He studied piano and guitar and at ten won a local award for a piano piece he composed. He began writing songs as a teenager. He also started calling himself Elliott because, he once said, Steve Smith was too alliterative and Steve sounded too ”jockish.” How fitting is it that Elliot Smith fought, even early on, with perception. Being too aware, too awake, can be such a burden, a burden he carried his entire life.

Either/Or spoke to the humanity in us all, and its authenticity made us search our souls and ponder and question the beauty that life beholds. It was sad, but so remarkably uplifting as well, and it was the foundation upon which all Elliot Smith’s success was built upon. Either/Or’s brilliance seems only to come more into focus over time, as twenty years after its release, its lyrical prowess and understated vigor only become magnified with the aid of hindsight.

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