A MASTERPIECE of Indie Folk, Elliott Smith’s 1997 album Either/Or may just be his magnum opus (although any of the five albums released in Smith’s lifetime could be considered worthy of that title). On its 20th anniversary though, we look back at his third studio record, released this week. Either/Or acts as a bridge between Smith’s earlier work, and the more produced albums XO and Figure 8, which would go on to be more successful. This success in part was helped by the inclusion of Smith’s songs in the film Good Will Hunting.
But on top of Smith’s transition to a slightly less lo-fi sound comes some incredible writing. This album is 12 tracks long, much shorter than XO and Figure 8, and it’s all killer, no filler. Bookended by ‘Speed Trials’ and ‘Say Yes’, Either/Or pulls from philosophy and Smith’s deepest emotions through confessional lyrics. Fittingly recorded in Portland, Oregon, the often dark themes are soundtracked by minimalist composition; acoustic guitar, often finger picked, along with some soft synthesizers occupy plenty of the songs, with bass, electric guitar and drums coming in purely the climax of a few songs.
And when these songs hit this point they really come into their own. ‘Ballad Of Big Nothing’ centres around the humble yet passionate vocals of Smith, while huge drums flesh the song out, as it paints a picture of characters who seem to be unhappy in a world without boundaries. Then we have ‘Pictures Of Me’ that develops from its quiet beginnings into a pounding, angry number where Smith speaks about the way he is viewed, how he seems to be being character assassinated. Speaking about these people “who’d like to see me down on my fucking knees”, Smith’s voice transitions from meek whisper to a harsh, scathing critique.
On the other hand though we have these beautiful tender acoustic cuts. ‘Angeles’ is perhaps the most tender of all the songs on this record; over these immaculately picked guitar lines, Smith delivers these comically dark lines of ‘so glad to meet you, Angeles’ as he sings about poverty and lies. ‘Between the Bars’ shows Smith’s vocals at a near whisper, and by double tracking both his vocals and the guitar creates a very romantic atmosphere. The track ‘Rose Parade’ is another particularly beautiful track, especially lyrically. Smith once again creates these characters and scenarios that are comical, disturbing and magical all at the same time.
The final two tracks on this record, ‘2:45am’ and ‘Say Yes’, are fitting closers to such an epic piece. The former fits its name perfectly; the hushed tone represents the wee hours of the morning excellently, with Smith’s vocals feeling very raw and honest. The closer, ‘Say Yes’, ends on a surprisingly upbeat note, even despite the darkness that lurks in many of these tracks. Perhaps there’s something to be said about how this track was written about someone he was very in love with; it’s almost like a beam of light shining through the bitter darkness.
If you’ve never listened to Elliott Smith before, Either/Or is as good a place as any to start. Its beautiful lyrics paint a picture, while the perfectly arranged music helps tell a story, be that about characters Smith has created, or something more biographical. Like a lot of Smith’s music, it’s an emotional journey, but is all the more mesmerising for it.
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