Death becomes Elliott Smith. His music is so fragile, so biting yet subtly sweet, that he fits especially well into the tortured genius narrative often imposed on musicians who take their own lives. Our cultural understanding of the legendary singer-songwriter has become so defined by his suicide that it’s now weird to imagine living with Smith’s music when Smith himself was still living. Yet that’s how Either/Or existed for six years or so, and even back then it scanned as a humble triumph by a generation-defining talent. Neither history nor tragedy was necessary to elevate Smith’s third solo album into the pantheon. It was brilliant without context.
The context was fascinating, though. Either/Or, which turns 20 years old this Saturday, arrived just after Smith’s tenure in the marginally successful indie rock band Heatmiser and just before Gus Van Sant rocketed Smith to international acclaim by peppering the Good Will Hunting soundtrack with his music. It was the pivot point in Smith’s career, his last gasp of lo-fi anonymity before competing with Céline Dion at the Oscars and venturing into the ornate chamber-pop pastures of XO and Figure 8. And it represented the absolute zenith of his pre-fame approach to recording, so thoroughly excellent that he probably never would have topped it even if he’d kept on living.
Not that Smith was completely obscure at the time of Either/Or’s release. On “Angeles,” he can already be heard grappling with the prospect of signing to a big LA record label, a leap of faith he’d take within the next year (to put it in terms Smith’s favorite philosopher would approve). His first two albums, 1994’s promising Roman Candle and 1995’s awe-inspiring self-titled effort, had amassed a sizable cult following, to the point that his solo career had completely overshadowed Heatmiser. The world might not have been watching yet, but a world was watching, eager to see if he could deliver another batch of songs on the level of “Needle In The Hay,” “Coming Up Roses,” and “The Biggest Lie.”
Did he ever! From start to finish, Either/Or exemplifies everything compelling about Smith’s music. The whispery vocal melodies tremble with barely contained emotion, nodding both to the Beatles and the smoldering internal wreckage that drove Smith to depression and substance abuse — or “hidden cracks that don’t show, but that constantly just grow,” as Smith himself sang on “2:45 A.M.” The arrangements are simple yet smart, accenting each tune without ever losing the sense that you’re in the room with Smith and his acoustic guitar; even when the drums kick in, Either/Or feels like listening in on band practice. The lyrics are poetic without ever getting too cryptic, giving you a clear vantage point into Smith’s headspace without over-explaining the details — and that headspace is heavy. Despite Smith’s doe-eyed appeal, he comes off wounded, embittered, and flat-out mean at times. He yearns for personal connection yet sighs with relief on “No Name No. 5″ when “everybody’s gone at last.” Even “Say Yes,” the album’s tender, optimistic final dispatch, is tempered by a weary resignation that nothing good can last.
The combined effect of it all is a rare sense of intimacy. To listen is to be up close and personal with Smith — brilliance, baggage, and all. Whatever your verdict on his character, the album functions as a sterling CV for Elliott Smith the musician and songwriter. Despite the unified barebones aesthetic, Either/Or presents the full scope of his skill set. The weighty dark-room solitude of his early records exists here alongside hints of his future studio splendor, though even bright pop-rock constructions “Ballad Of Big Nothing” and “Pictures Of Me” can’t obscure the overwhelming sadness that’s laid bare in quiet confessions like “Between The Bars.” Ambling reveries like “Alameda” and “Rose Parade” share space with “Cupid’s Trick,” a fleeting blast of electricity that rocks much harder than Smith’s gentle sad boy image would allow.
These songs add up to such a small-scale tour de force that Either/Or was practically preordained to make Smith a star. It communicated deep beauty and profound sorrow long before its creator plunged a knife into his chest. And while it’s impossible to revisit Either/Or outside Smith’s tragic narrative, this album isn’t brimming with death. Even 20 years later, it remains warm, arresting, human, and painfully alive.