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Either/Or built the myth of Elliott Smith

Elliott Smith (Photo: Courtesy of Kill Rock Stars)
Elliott Smith (Photo: Courtesy of Kill Rock Stars)

Permanent Records is an ongoing closer look at the records that matter most.

Either/Or, the third solo album by the late Elliott Smith, isn’t the only Smith recording to pass a milestone anniversary in recent months. Last October marked two decades since the release of Mic City Sons, the swan song for Heatmiser, the Portland-based rock group that was Smith’s primary musical outlet from 1991 to 1996. There were no high-profile hosannas sung for Mic City Sons, no remastered reissue with bonus live tracks lovingly packaged in a gatefold sleeve. The album has its moments, but it’s not a canonical work; it’s an artifact from the major labels’ post-grunge gold rush, most interesting as the sound of a band changing its priorities in real time. For Smith cultists, it’s the origin point of songs they’ve come to know through concert bootlegs and rarities compilations, the last recorded work of Elliott Smith before he was, you know, “Elliott Smith.”

For 13 of those 20 years, who Elliott Smith was has been the subject of magazine profiles, two biographies, a book of photographs and interviews by his friend and collaborator Autumn De Wilde, an entry in the 33 1/3 series, and an extensive online oral history. The two stab wounds to the chest that Smith sustained on October 21, 2003, ended a life that was marked by trauma, a personal history with addiction, depression, and abuse that listeners were too quick to read into his music while he was still alive. “At first I thought of it as storytelling. It’s never seemed confessional to me,” Smith told The Boston Globe in 1999, the hometown paper of characters he’d soundtracked in the previous year’s Good Will Hunting. “I don’t need people to understand what it is to be me. It’s more like dreams… pieces are me and pieces are other people and pieces are some character I’m making up.” In true, self-contradicting, Elliott Smith form, it’s a sentiment that’s not too far removed from the chorus of Either/Or’s seething “Pictures Of Me”:

So sick and tired of all these pictures of me
Completely wrong
Totally wrong

That song and the 11 other tracks on Either/Or gave birth to the myth of Elliott Smith. His first two albums, Roman Candle and Elliott Smith, garnered Smith a following among Pacific Northwesterners and fellow musicians like Lou Barlow, Mary Lou Lord, and Slim Moon. As a member of Heatmiser, Smith’s work had attracted the attention of Virgin Records. But Either/Or was his breakout moment, a perfect album defined by its imperfections, a collection of bleary-eyed laments and narratives about the downtrodden, sung with inimitable gentleness. There were cleaner, bigger-budget productions in his future, but he wouldn’t have gotten to that point without the rawness and precision of Either/Or. Little more than a year after the album’s release, Elliott Smith would be an Oscar nominee. His path to show business’ biggest stage begins with the unedited “clunk” that heralds the beginning of Either/Or and its bracingly lo-fi opener, “Speed Trials.”

Either/Or represents many poles in Smith’s career. His first release post-Heatmiser would be his last for Kill Rock Stars, the indie stalwart founded by Slim Moon and Tinuviel Sampson in 1991. It’s the beginning of a three-record run with producers Tom Rothrock and Rob Schnapf (who’d also worked on Mic City Sons), and the end of Smith’s time in Oregon. The liner notes of Either/Or trace a farewell tour around the singer-songwriter’s adopted hometown, from references to geographic locations (“Alameda”) and local rituals (“Rose Parade”) to the names of fellow scene fixtures who gave him the space to lay down tracks (Joanna Bolme of Stephen Malkmus And The Jicks and Quasi; Larry Crane, with whom Smith would build Jackpot! Recording Studio). While Either/Or says goodbye, it makes a sideways introduction to the geographic muse on Smith’s horizon: “So good to meet you / Angeles.”

Either/Or is, in the purest sense of the word, a transitional work. (Something this very publication noted at the time of its release.) Whereas that term could connote incompletion and uncertainty, for Either/Or, it’s progression. No album so capricious—from the Kiekergaardian disjunction of its title to the “They want you or they don’t” of its closing track, “Say Yes”—should sound so confident, accomplished, and driven. But Smith was nothing if not confident, accomplished, and driven in the studio in the mid-1990s, qualities that are once more evident in the remastered tracks on Kill Rock Stars’ 20th-anniversary edition of Either/Or (due March 10). “He would record one live take of vocal and guitar together, and then he would just double to it once we got it,” producer Schnapf told Pitchfork in 2013.

“It was just absurd. The guitar stuff isn’t even easy. It was ridiculous that he was able to just nail a vocal and guitar performance live, and he was able to double it live again. I mean, it’s not like he’s strumming G, C, D. There’s intricate little fills. It sounds so natural, and so simple—then you try to play it. And sing at the same time. He was just really good. Understated, but really good.”

There’s a modesty to Either/Or that keeps the technical proficiency from overwhelming the proceedings. “It could easily have been bigger-sounding,” Schnapf says in the Pitchfork oral history. “We could have blown it up more, but he wasn’t ready to do it just yet.” Though its instrumentation is bulked-up from the folk-busker arrangements of Smith’s first two records, that instrumentation gets no more ornate than a few keyboard parts. Smith’s chops are always in service of his songs, the complex picking on “Alameda” and “Angeles” or the ripping solo on “Cupid’s Trick” born from and enhanced by his ear for melody and composition. The instrumental breakdown in “Pictures Of Me” is particularly impressive in this respect, as Smith pulls together a few measures of Beatles pastiche that calls to mind multiple eras of the band.

The influence of the Fab Four hangs heavy over Smith’s discography; he was on a Magical Mystery Tour kick while working on Either/Or. Combining the soundtrack from The Beatles’ 1967 Boxing Day special with their non-album singles from that year, the album hits some down notes, but it’s still a bit of a walk from the lonely psychedelia of “Blue Jay Way” to the mid-bender pleas of “Between The Bars.” “The fact that it seems like a lot of my songs are—what’s the word, dark?—is definitely a problem to me,” Smith told The L.A. Times in 1998. “It’s not like I want to carve out a little corner and stay there… Happy songs are great when they come along. I mean, they haven’t come along a lot…”

The perception of Smith as sad-bastard music’s saddest bastard certainly didn’t begin with Either/Or—to paraphrase the headline of that L.A. Times piece, misery has plenty of company on Roman Candle and Elliott Smith. Either/Or seems to give these feelings a time and a place. “2:45 AM” is an emotional state summed up in a digital clock readout, a narrative set at an hour when regret is the default mode. It’s one of a few Either/Or tracks that leaves the listener wanting more, the full band arrangement of its final verse suggesting a catharsis that never arrives. “Cupid’s Trick” winds itself up for one more attack, but dissipates in the reverberations of a cymbal splash. It’s a resolution and a tease, a halting stop that’s gaining momentum, the compositional equivalent of Either/Or’s most quotable line: “Everybody’s dying just to get the disease.”

The album’s hushed masterpiece, “Between The Bars,” goes one step further, subverting Smith’s sense of pop classicism by hanging up on the chord that should pivot to a bridge or a concluding verse. A bittersweet waltz whose economy nevertheless makes room for an abundance of feeling, “Between The Bars” lends itself to any number of interpretations from brooding strummers; skip Madonna’s melodramatic reading for the version by Emily Haines and James Shaw of Metric.

The professional high point of this period wound up arriving courtesy of a legitimately unfinished track. After using some of Smith’s songs in an early version of his film about a self-taught math genius working as a janitor at MIT, Gus Van Sant approached the singer-songwriter about using his music in the final cut. In addition to “No Name #3” from Roman Candle, the official soundtrack for Good Will Hunting wound up featuring three tracks from Either/Or: “Angeles,” “Say Yes,” and “Between The Bars.” Seeking to supplement those selections, the film’s studio, Miramax, inquired about unreleased material. The song that would become the Oscar-nominated “Miss Misery” had been previously tracked by Smith and Larry Crane (Shh! Don’t tell the Academy!); with Schnapf and Rothrock, Smith completed the song early on in the sessions for his next album, XO.

For millions of people, this is the only Elliott Smith they know: The guy in the white suit, singing half of a song before becoming the next nominee steamrolled by the Titanic Oscar juggernaut. To a smaller group of fans, this “surreal” (as Smith would come to call it) intersection of the underground and the mainstream would take on its own mythic stature. As time goes on, and the story of Smith’s life gets told and retold, more of it slips into the realm of myth. Is any of it the “true” Elliott Smith? No more so than the “made-up” people and situations heard on Either/Or. But as that record continues to prove, 20 years later, made-up things can still pack a lot of power.