An album review on Either / Or by Elliot Smith
Twenty years ago, on February 25th, Elliott Smith released his third solo album Either/Or. The album was recorded in Smith’s hometown of Portland, Oregon, mostly in his own residence or in homes of people he knew. The record was produced by Rob Schnapf and Tom Rothrock, who, as a team, produced a number of well known artists, from Stevie Nicks to the Foo Fighters. It was released on Kill Rock Stars Records in 1997, three years after his first album Roman Candle.
In contrast to his earlier work, Smith broadened his instrumentation on his third effort, frequently using a bass guitar, drums, guitar, and keyboards, playing all of them himself. The title of the album is derived from a set of books with the same name, written by a Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, with the subject matter of said books including anger, death, and existential despair, most of which was mirrored in the writing of Smith’s album. With the first two albums the singer/songwriter released there were often hints of dismay and sadness incorporated in between chords, but not until Either/Or did he quite delve into his depression. The album is full of odes to heartbreak and self-pity, with hooks as catchy as the pop songs of that time. Lyrics such as “Nobody broke your heart/You broke your own because you can’t finish what you start” from “Alameda”, the second song recorded, recount a sadness similar only to that previously described by The Smiths and Joy Division before him.
On the album’s tenth track “Cupid’s Trick” Smith makes his first reference to what would become an unfortunately large part of him in years to come: his use of heroin. In the liner notes of the album’s physical release, under track ten Smith wrote, “I can’t say because it’s too stupid. At the time it made perfect sense but now I just don’t want anyone to know,” instead of including the lyrics to the song which contained, “Shoot me up/It’s my life”. Another notable song on Either/Or is the seventh number, Rose Parade which has often been interpreted as anti-capitalist, detailing the absurdity of the annual Rose Parade in Portland. The album ends on what has been deemed as his most optimistic song, “Say Yes”, breaking free from his sullen melancholy with the portrayal of his love for a girl.
Shortly after the release of Either/Or, Smith was contacted by director, and fellow Portland-Native, Gus Van Sant. He explained he wanted Smith to contribute music for a film he was working on entitled Good Will Hunting. “Say Yes” and “Angeles” were included in the movie, as well as “No Name #3” from his self-titled sophomore album, and “Miss Misery”, a song written specifically for the film. Upon the indie flick’s release, Smith’s career was launched (alongside the movie’s stars Matt Damon and Ben Affleck). The singer was nominated for an Oscar and, after much hesitation, performed “Miss Misery” at the Academy Awards. Sadly, Smith didn’t handle the success well, spiraling into a sea of drug addiction, depression, and psychotic episodes, resulting in numerous suicide attempts. After two studio albums, and a number of failed stints at rehab, Elliott Smith died on October 21st 2003, from a number of self inflicted stab wounds.
Although his death and life are often shrouded in sadness and regret, Smith’s work has led to much more than many realise. Aside from becoming one of the first heavy emotional-driven artist to gain popularity, Smith paved the way for indie singer/songwriters. Either/Or’s lo-fi style is often sought out today, connecting to people in a way that pristine, studio-quality audio can’t. His subject matter, musical style, and blatant honesty have lead to blaze trails in a number of genres, from emo to indie to punk. Smith is named as an influence by a number of artists, some on the more obvious side, such as Sufjan Stevens and Death Cab for Cutie, and some more surprising, like Bon Iver and Frank Ocean. Smith didn’t release much music before his death, but this is all the more reason to cherish a masterpiece like Either/Or, 36 minutes and 52 seconds filled with a spectrum of raw emotions, untouched by corporate ethos or expectations.