It's difficult for me to write about Elliott Smith. Most of us listen to a myriad of artists, and we love all of them differently. Elliott was that one artist I wished I knew personally. I am embarrassed to admit it felt like a friend had passed after hearing of his death. I've heard that said in interviews with fans, and I'd always scoffed at the idea. When John Lennon passed, I would guess the public outpouring of grief was related to a set of aging ideals that were so intrinsically linked to him. Because the nature of Elliott's music was so much more personal, the grief took on a different complexion - it's that goodbye you wish you'd said, that clarification you won't have, that trickling, dripping sadness that always stays with someone.
So how do I look at this album objectively? I first listened to Elliott Smith because I felt I should - he seemed to be one of those artists every indie fan liked. I didn't get it at all - it seemed too detached, too 'some guy and his guitar'. I was still comparing everything to the fading sound of grunge and what had followed. The turning point was hearing Waltz #1, off the album that followed this one. I became obsessed, and I hunted down anything I could find by Elliott. Listening to 'Either / Or' without blinkers was a revelation. This is why everyone loved Elliott.
No singer songwriter I've heard is better at taking all the hardness of life, and running it through a filter of such grave beauty. Besides the ever present spectre of addiction that haunts his songs, there is such a sense of resignation and resentment for the unfairness of life. Yet Elliott doesn't pretend that this is not a consequence of getting older and we are not responsible for our failing sensitivity. That this message is packaged in such a detached delivery that is subtly humming with intensity, and that it is beautiful in the same way many things in nature are - delicate, hidden from view, not understood - is what makes this music so unique.
The aesthetic of Smith is couched in the directness of such great artists like the Beatles, but refined with off-kilter changes in a predictable melody, a quick delivery or a skeletal guitar structure and countless chord changes that sculpt the song. The rhythm itself is melodic. That he reworked his material until satisfied is an understatement - these songs are crafted out of endless reflection. Yet his production choices seem to obscure this, and give greater power by introducing a sense of imperfection. At no point in his career was this more in balance than on 'Either / Or'. The song writing had improved from his previous two efforts, and he did not yet have the tools to break out of the intimacy of his recording setup.
'Speed Trials', the opener, has a syrupy feel with soft percussion and hushed tones. The jerky but sweet vocal gives a sense of dislocation that is finally dispelled by the runs at the end. It is a perfect starting point. 'Alameda' has the feel of a city street, and captures the idea of a crowded mind with its busy, ever present guitar lines. 'Ballad of Big Nothing' is all swinging guitar on the intro with lush drums and swooping melody. 'Between the Bars' is the soundtrack to a cold night where something is unfolding, something important yet internal and minute.
Elliott's sense of humour is not always easy to spot, but it's at work in the jaunty 'Pictures of me'. The staccato intro of the song is underpinned by the cascading series of notes ringing out to introduce Elliott's straining, sarcastic voice. 'No name 5' furthers illustrates Elliott's pop mastery - it's not a standard structure but in no way feels inaccessible, with its brooding build up that never drags, but feels infinitely longer and more considered than its short duration. 'Rose Parade' is a slice of observation which is just undeniable - the languid prettiness of the song is at war with the black humour, and its wondrous in its simplicity.'Punch and Judy' forms a sweet interlude to bookend the middle of the record.
The final act of Either / Or begins with one of Elliott's best songs - 'Angeles'. It's probably one of my top 20 of all time. The intro is shifting, restless patchwork of fingerpicking, with a plaintive hum in the background, like the lingering memory of something great that is now over. The vocal floats on top, a greyscale phantom. Moving through the quick ups and downs you make your way to bridge, that introduces that imperceptible moment of dissent. The end of the song delivers a small threat, subtle but unmistakeable. It's genius, the centre of the album - hovering around a choice, knowing that neither will fully satisfy.
'Cupid's Trick' brings some discord to the last movement, buzzing and cutting through the fog of the production. '2:45 am' continues in the vein of 'No name 5', and seems a natural follow up - the aftermath. The ending boils over with dissolute anger.
The last song, 'Say yes', is a curious artefact, with its fragile message of hope between the appearance of giving up. I love this song, just because it's a hint of what Elliott maybe hoped to become - someone with a second chance. Considering so many of his songs deal with the theme of cutting ties (and they sound like it), it’s heart-warming to hear something about forming a bond. Sadly, Elliott never took that second chance. We are left with an amazing body of work that has not dated, and never will. At the heart of it, is 'Either / Or' - when I put it on, I hear a friend talking to me about how he sees the world in a moment of complete, hushed honesty. I recognise some of the things he's saying - because sometimes I think and feel those things too. He just says them so much more eloquently than I (or most of us) ever could.