When it came time to decide what to do with the rest of my life after school finished I had no idea. I was suffocating in my own privilege. I realise now that in the grand scheme of things, this is not such a bad problem to have. At the time it felt like a burden. Eventually I decided to study at the University of Liverpool, where I met some of my dearest friends. I don’t see them as often as I perhaps should, and one person in particular who I truly miss is my friend Dan. Of the many gifts that Dan gave me through our friendship, one of the most important to me has been Either/Or.
From the moment I met him I knew we would be friends. At the time he seemed liked a mountain of a man to me. He was sat in our shared kitchen smoking a roll up cigarette, wearing an old pair of cargo shorts and Mexican Baja hoodie, singing to himself. His long blonde hair toppled off his head in ringlets, and he was hunched over the table squeezed onto a tiny chair – he reminded me of Jeff Bridges’ infamous portrayal of slacker hero The Dude in The Big Lebowksi.
We spent hours almost every single day smoking and listening to records. Sadly, in our second year, Dan had problems of his own to deal with and had to move back home to Cambridge. I missed him a great deal, but I still had all the music we had shared. Elliott Smith was one of his favourites, and from the very first seconds of Either/Or - as Smith’s jack cable slips noisily into his guitar - I was hooked.
Fitting amongst the rest of his canon, the album represented the first step away from the lo-fi recordings of Roman Candle and his self-titled second effort. It was a glimpse of Smith as a world-beating songwriter who had been elevated from the basement where he’d made his name, one step closer to where he rightly belonged, with the greats. It moved away from his earlier dwellings on drug abuse and seemed to be searching for something deeper. So was I, and in Smith, I found it.
Discovering music like Smith’s was an awakening for me. It meant finding something more meaningful than the stroppy teenage anger that I had unlocked with punk and metal. It was a quieter rage, a non-violent stand against everything in the world that I had been trying to rail noisily against, and failing. It was protest music for introverts. It knew me better than I knew myself.
I adored everything about it; the hushed tones and double-tracked vocals that are a signature of his sound, the baggy snare drums and gently brushed cymbals. It was a record for 4am, a record to drown in, a deep and soothing pool that sucked you down into a caress that it was easy to imagine would never end. I identified with Smith because he sung about loneliness, fear, and confusion. Fear of life, of noise, of loss. Confusion with the way the world worked. He seemed afraid of and confused by all the same things I was, and yet, he had turned that fear and confusion into something so beautiful and, in places, angry. ‘Alameda’ was the first track to cut me to the quick with its disarming honesty. It could have been written just for me: “You walk down Alameda looking at the cracks in the sidewalk / Thinking about all your friends / How you maintain all of them in a constant state of suspense / For your own protection / Over their affection / Nobody broke your heart / You broke your own because you can't finish what you start”
I was floored. It was like someone had cut open my mind with a scalpel and was rummaging around inside whilst I was lucid. I had been sleepwalking through life, no direction, never giving anything my full attention or effort. I had been struggling with a depression and melancholy which had no name or form for years, unaware of the fog I was in. Suddenly, it was crystallised for me in one neat line of verse.
His poignant, philosophical lyrical style was laced with dark humour and self-deprecation, but also harboured a bitterness that I could identify with, a bile that seemed to rise from somewhere deep inside, from some indiscernible crack that had formed within me. He was a master of the throwaway line whose simplicity belies its genius, epitomised in the pithy poeticism of “Everybody’s dying just to get the disease” on ‘Pictures Of Me’.
It was echoed elsewhere on ‘Between The Bars’, a lamentation that swings like a lullaby, a toast to missed opportunities, an expression of jealous love and desire that I myself had felt keenly and never heard expressed so beautifully by anyone else. The liquor-soaked midnight hours that this song lived in were so reminiscent of my own experiences trying to drown out the noisy mess of my inner voice that it hit me like a broadside. One night stands, failed romances, unrequited love – all the pieces of my clumsy and belated transition from youth to adulthood seemed to shine through its prism.
Dan has a soft spot for the charming, sad twinkle of ‘Angeles’, and it remains one of Smith’s most well-known and loved songs. It’s one that has stayed with me through thick and thin over the years. It’s a song that’s changeable, like the inside of a shell that shines with iridescence as you slowly tilt it back and forth in the light. It communicates in some other language, some transcendent perfection that defies all explanation, slipping its way into whatever emotions you happen to be experiencing at the time.
‘No Name No. 5’ was one of the few tracks which, at the time, didn’t resonate with me as much as others, but listening back now and putting the release into the context of its 1997 birth date, it’s an astonishingly prescient composition that’s as heavy and droning as anything Kyuss produced. Next time a metalhead tells me they don’t like acoustic music, I will play them this song.
For me, Either/Or is seminal Elliott Smith. It’s a release which cemented his sound, propelled him into the mainstream, and ultimately proved to be the first real step on the journey to his untimely and still mysteriously tragic death from stab wounds in 2003, just six years after its release. It was a step away from his struggles in the darkness towards a more hopeful future, a life still laced with pitfalls and setbacks, but one that was clawing towards a better vision of what could be made for it. As the vices he had used as crutches fell away one by one, he was reportedly the happiest and healthiest he had been in the months before his death. Suicide or not, maybe we’ll never know, but the seeds for future happiness that Smith seemed to be trying to sow on Either/Or seemed finally to have come to fruition.
As an ending statement, the hopeful denouement of ‘Say Yes’ is perhaps one of the finest closing sentiments of any album ever recorded. In retrospect, it almost feels like the ultimate sign-off from Smith, a song he could easily have written to serve as his eventual final love letter to the world. As it happened, it would come to sum up the relentless highs and lows of my own life experiences over the next ten years in an effortlessly poetic and beautiful sentiment:
“I'm in love with the world through the eyes of a girl / Who's still around the morning after / We broke up a month ago, and I grew up - I didn't know / I'd be around the morning after / It's always been wait and see / A happy day and then you'll pay / And feel like shit the morning after / But now I feel changed around / And instead of falling down / I'm standing up the morning after”
Elliott Smith's Either/Or will be reissued as a deluxe 20th anniversary set on March 10 via UMC. The Expanded Edition – available on 2-LP, 2-CD and digital formats – features five multi-track live recordings from Olympia, Washington's Yo Yo A Go Go Festival in 1997, along with four rare and unreleased studio recordings. For more information about the artist, please click here.