Much has been made of Elliott Smith’s performance at the 1997 Oscar ceremony, and rightly so. Not only is it an inherently bizarre moment in pop culture, it’s a nervous but typically brilliant performance, with a surprisingly understated Academy orchestra in the background. It marked the beginning of a new chapter for Smith, who had been a relatively successful indie rock musician until he was suddenly the Oscar-nominated center of attention.
Either/Or found Elliott Smith on the edge of this major success. He wasn’t about to top the Billboard charts, but fans of his first three records surely didn’t imagine hearing his songs at a multiplex. This was an especially funny notion considering Either/Or, the record that informed Gus Van Sant's Good Will Hunting soundtrack, featured Smith and his narrators at their most downtrodden and unlucky.
The album’s lyrics are full of disappointment and loneliness, sung over melodies straight out of Tin Pan Alley; it’s a Los Angeles record, one that finds the city both foreboding and transparent. There’s a constant push and pull in all of Smith’s work, contrasts between simple and intricate, dissonant and melodic. Nowhere is this clearer than on Either/Or, a record that starts with Smith singing “He’s planned to meet you underneath the horse/ In the cathedral with the glass stained black.” Things don’t get much bleaker than that, but there’s a hope in Elliott Smith’s darkness and a cynical sense of humor that propels Either/Or from self-doubt towards cautious optimism.
The record is a bridge between the lo-fi darkness of Roman Candle and Elliott Smith and the studio sheen of XO and Figure 8. Although Smith sings in his signature near-whisper, the guitars are crystal clear. While his previous work consisted of just guitar and vocals, drums and bass sneak their way onto these songs, and the change works beautifully. Opening track “Speed Trials” signals this shift, with Smith’s guitar entering the record alongside subdued drums.
Simply put, the songs on Either/Or are Elliott Smith’s best, from the poppy and seething “Ballad of Big Nothing” to the beautifully haunting “Angeles,” which features Smith gently fingerpicking his guitar while a single keyboard note sounds in the distance. “Between The Bars” is the centerpiece of the album and perhaps Smith's career. Gus Van Sant featured the song prominently in his film, and it’s easy to see why -- it’s cinematic in scope; you can picture its narrator wandering the city in a drunken, but not altogether pleasant, haze. The sweetly sad melody is a perfect complement to the bittersweet lyrics, which allude to a life made whole but incomplete by alcohol.
The soft, dopily romantic “Say Yes” is the unexpectedly hopeful conclusion to Either/Or: “I’m in love with a world through the eyes of a girl/ Who’s still around the morning after,” he sings over a slowly descending scale. The song gives the listener a sense that this man, so clearly experienced with disillusion and addiction, is not inexperienced with love and sunlight. Sure, he seems to be near-whispering -- this world is a dark place to inhabit -- but look. Look what’s still here, no matter what; look at what I found. Tomorrow.
1. Speed Trials
3. Ballad Of Big Nothing
4. Between The Bars
5. Pictures Of Me
6. No Name No. 5
7. Rose Parade
8. Punch and Judy
10. Cupid’s Trick
11. 2:45 AM
12. Say Yes