It is on this, his final independent label album, that singer-songwriter Elliott Smith gives his boldest artistic statement. Using mainly the backing of a gentle but melodic acoustic guitar, Smith shows us his broken and lonely soul in a remarkable and heart-breaking fashion.
Named after a philosophy book which confronts topics such as morality, meaning of life and despair, Either/Or sees Smith try to comment on these topics in his own way as he gives his views on the world around him and on himself. On the lo-fi album opener Speed Trials the backing of quiet drums and guitar supports Smith’s muffled voice as he sings critically of himself while looking at his own life. He talks of his unwillingness to better himself and improve as a person, instead he prefers to stay in the same place and do his best to avoid hardships or getting hurt, something that many of us can relate to. This gloomy, moody and bitter beginning shows Smith starting the album as he means to go on.
On Alameda, Smith refers to himself in the second person and talks to himself about how he is treating his friends wrong and that he’ll end up losing them if he carries on with his distancing act. Whatever is causing him to become further distanced from his friends, whether it be drugs, fear of rejection or something else, he has come to the realisation that if he is alone, he has only himself to blame. The next song, Ballad of Big Nothing, is more upbeat in terms of musical content as it involves a quicker tempo and has the addition of bass and drums, and it is the first song on the album specifically about drug addiction, a problem that plagued Smith for much of his life. In short, it dictates the story of someone who has lost everyone and is desperately lonely, thus becoming the ‘nothing’ that is talked about in the song’s title, and finally turning to drugs as a last resort. The lyrics and vocal performance beautifully contrast the overarching theme of the song here and the results are astounding. One of the albums’ standout tracks.
The next track, Between the Bars, is the most famous on the album and also quite possibly the most depressing, which really is saying something. The song is sung from the point of view of an alcoholic drink that talks to Smith almost as though it is in a loving relationship with him. It tells him that it will protect him from the hardships, care about him, and make him forget about his past. The song gives you a clear insight into Smith’s mind at this time as he is in the throes of an alcohol dependency. It’s as if he knows that the alcohol has a hold of him and that it is harming him, but that he doesn’t want to do anything about it because it is the only thing shielding him from his responsibilities. Between the Bars gives a deeply saddening view into the mind of an alcoholic.
Pictures of Me, on which Smith gives his negative views on Hollywood and fame, shows him again use the technique of contrasting very depressing and quite angry lyrics with an upbeat and quick musical style. Following this, Smith again returns to the sombre acoustic balladry with No Name #5, a simple song on which he discusses how everyone who was once close to him has gradually moved away, leaving him alone finally. He has stayed stationary in his state of depression and misery while everyone around him has progressed and moved on with their lives. He isn’t even particularly angry or upset about being alone because he knew it was inevitable. He is almost numb to it.
After another two slow acoustic songs, Rose Parade and Punch and Judy, in which Smith talks about his hometown of Portland and his experiences there comes my personal high point of the album, Angeles. It is on this song that Smith’s heavy Beatles influence shines through brightest as the melody and chord progressions throughout the song are worthy of any classic pop song. Instead, these melodies are played on a quiet, finger-plucked guitar in a very sombre fashion. On this song, Smith contemplates the merits and disadvantages of moving to Los Angeles and signing a major record deal. He has very negative views of major labels, stating on the song that many A&R men promise you so much that you will never get and lie to you in order to get you to sign. He knows that the major labels are evil and don’t care for the artists, but deep down he knows that he desires for his music to be heard by a larger audience, despite the negative connotations that come with it. The struggle between fame and righteousness is prominent in this song and in Smith’s mind and in the end he knows, as we all do, which side will win.
2:45AM sees Smith talk about his past and the abuse that he suffered in his youth. He talks about the memories he’s suppressed resurfacing in the dead of night and how he is searching for someone to save him from these thoughts but no one is coming. With the final song comes the melodic high point and the most beautiful guitar playing on the album. Say Yes, featured in the 1997 film Good Will Hunting, is the only semi-upbeat song (lyrically speaking) on the album. He sings of having found a girl that he genuinely likes and feels that his mannerisms and loser ways are beginning to gradually change when he’s around her (mirroring the story of the film). But obviously this couldn’t actually be a completely happy song because Smith then goes on to talk about how damaged a man he is and how this is likely to drag the relationship down. The song, and the album, ends on the cliffhanger of him asking the girl to stay with him, pleading with her to just ‘say yes’. We never do find out her answer, but I’d like to think she says yes.
Either/Or is a modern folk masterpiece and its brilliant combination of melodic guitar playing and pained lyricism is the best of its kind since Nick Drake in the early 70’s. Smith’s mastery of his instrument and his brutally honest lyrics about himself and his current plight, and that of the world around him make this album stand out as a beacon of modern songwriting. Elliott Smith continues to inspire musicians even today nearly 15 years after his death and Either/Or stands as his seminal album and maybe the best album of the 1990’s. Truly brilliant and heartbreaking at the same time.