China: 20 Years of Either/Or

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Elliott Smith – Either/Or

Released February 25th, 1997 on Kill Rock Stars Records

BestEverAlbums:  #149

RYM:  #106

Kurt Cobain may have been louder and flashier, but Elliott Smith really was the quintessential Nineties rock star.  Haunted, brooding, and darkly melodic, he epitomized the “tortured artist” aesthetic that was popular during the first half of the decade.  Raised in an abusive environment in Texas, he moved to Portland, Oregon and channeled his demons into drugs, alcohol, and music.  His original band, Heatmiser, wasn’t anything particularly special but his solo releases – 1994’s Roman Candle and 1995’s self-titled LP – captured the imagination of listeners much more.  Those solo releases had little to do with what Heatmiser was doing, and in the fall of 1996, shortly before their last album was released, they broke up (fun fact: bassist Sam Coomes would go on to be the frontman for Quasi).  Smith’s next release would eclipse both his former band and everything he had recorded up until that point.

 

Either/Or was first an attempt by Smith to vary the moods on an album.  Elliott Smith had been an album that was largely the same from beginning to end:  acoustic confessionals about drugs and depression.  Either/Or has some of those, of course:  “Speed Trials”, “Between The Bars”, and “No Name No. 5” are evidence of that.  Songs like “Alameda”, “Ballad Of Big Nothing”, and “Rose Parade”, though, are evidence of something bigger:  songs by a guy who proved on this album that he could craft big hooks, emotionally impactful melodies, and arrangements that were built to last.  That last item is especially important:  Either/Or doesn’t sound like 1997 – there’s no pandering to teen pop, or ska, or post-grunge trends.  It could have been released last year, or ten years ago, or today.  It’s songs and it’s themes are artistically timeless, even more so now that the waves of the Great American Heroin Addiction have crashed over the shores of seemingly every state in the Union.

 

Everything that came after – Gus Van Sant’s love of the album, Good Will Hunting, “Miss Misery”, Smith’s two major label albums, and his mysterious death – would cement his legend.  Either/Or is the moment that Emily St. John Mandel describes in Station Eleven:  a moment that, ever after, would divide Smith’s life into “Before” and “After”.  Before Either/Or, he was an up-and-coming songwriter with an acoustic guitar and a monkey on his back.  After, he was a bona fide rock star with a following and highly-placed friends.  Neither would prevent him from slipping a little further into addiction and depression – or from dying in Los Angeles with twin stab wounds to the chest, a death still shrouded to this day in suspicion and mystery.

 

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