2017 seems to be the anniversary year for many well-regarded 90’s releases. 20 years ago in 1997 Elliott Smith released his seminal album, Either/Or. Twelve songs of depth, sincerity, uncertainty, and even political thought, this was Smith’s shining moment and the permanency of his now present cult status as one of music’s best artists was sealed.
Not to go into the deep end on how this album makes one feel, because there are too many insightful reviews out there already, this review is really just a reminder of how great the music here is/was. Smith’s lyrics have always been sometimes bewildering on first listen. You get a sense of urgency from what he is singing about, and yet there is also a hidden quality to his songs. He doesn’t want to quite tell you everything, and that is some of his most charming moments. You are left to try to decipher what the man is saying. Just don’t read into it too much I ask. You do not want to end up in too dark of places.
Moreover, this is where the critical eye comes into play. I cannot fault the album for what it’s inspired today, but for goodness sake, please stop trying to live your life through this one man. I have seen the same thing happen for Ian Curtis and Nick Drake diehards. It is ok to love the music and feel a personal connection, but when it becomes too much for one to handle, and they start trying to be a personification of someone they never were, well… it is just sad to see. There is more to life than this, for real.
Smith was not some messenger saint. He never tried to be either. He simply wrote songs that meant a lot to him and with that, people attached. Kurt Cobain had the same kind of reaction but in a too massive way for him to handle. We know the result of that. As for Smith? Well he is sadly no longer with us, and his tragic death seemed to carry with it an even deeper meaning. It was not martyrdom; it was tragedy and still a mystery.
As for the music itself? It is subdued but excellent in its organic feel. Either/Or was the middle period from Smith’s indie roots to major label sheen. It was also his first real solo album after his band Heatmiser broke up. There is more of a Pop sound inspired by Smith’s love of The Beatles, which he apparently listened to everyday while recording. Either/Or has lush sounding choruses and a fuller backing band sound attributed to Smith playing all the instruments himself and double tracking his guitars and singing. It was a good combination of Heatmiser immediacy and his early Lo-fi qualities.
Every track is worth talking about in conversations, but let us keep this short. “2:45 AM” is an album highlight for sure. I think the lyrics speak for it themselves:
“It's 2:45 in the morning / And I'm putting myself on warning / For waking up in an unknown place / With a recollection you've half erased”
“Looking for somebody's arms to / Wave away past harms / I'm walking out on center circle / The both of you can just fade to black”
“I'm walking out on center circle / Been pushed away and I'll never go back”
This is melancholy sounding stuff, close to the level of Pink Moon or anything off Closer. The song though is completely wonderful in all its limited glory. Smith’s guitar playing is understated and his vocals are haunting. This is just one of his many songs that hit’s straight for the heart. Portland, OR at 2:45 AM? What else does one do around that time of night anywhere? Here is one person’s story. “I'm looking for the man that attacked me / While everybody was laughing at me…”
Album closer “Say Yes” is another great tune and fan favorite. A bit more uplifting sounding, but with lyrics that are not as fun, in fact scorched earth-like. This man is laying waste to himself and the result seems to be a never-ending cycle of constant pain, damaging his psyche, and coming out in the end with no answer to it all. Smith wrote it in five minutes apparently.
We have all been there, with these lyrics hitting so close to home for some of us. One should hope humbleness comes afterwards. I guess that is great Pop music though. Always hidden behind the veil of honest people with faults. I can relate to that completely…
“What came first, the music or the misery? People worry about kids playing with guns, or watching violent videos, that some sort of culture of violence will take them over. Nobody worries about kids listening to thousands, literally thousands of songs about heartbreak, rejection, pain, misery and loss. Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?”
- Rob Gordon
R.I.P. Mr. Smith…