“Drink up baby / Stay up all night / With the things you could do / You won’t but you might / The potential you’ll be / That you’ll never see / The promises you’ll only make”. So starts “Between The Bars”, from Elliott Smith’s third solo album either/or. It’s as good a statement as any to describe the mood of this collection of songs about drug abuse, failed relationships and the pitfalls of stardom. Not that Elliott Smith the songwriter or performer isn’t making the most of his own potential here. It’s the downfall of his characters. Over the course of his first two solo outings, Roman Candle (Cavity Search) and his self-titled second effort (Kill Rock Stars), his fans are left to wonder if he isn’t writing entirely autobiographically. It would be hard to imagine that the majority of his lyrics, so sincere and detailed, could be a work of fiction. With his admitted past drug use and problems with relationships (both family and otherwise), it seems clear these songs are him, raw and unedited.
Elliott Smith was still a member of Portland’s Heatmiser at the time he recorded either/or, though that group would be broken up when it was released. Smith shared lead vocal duties with Neil Gust in Heatmiser, though he found himself recording and releasing his own acoustic-based material. His own music was much more sparse and personal than that of his previous group, which in no small part led to his breakout success. His bleak, Dylanesque lyrics have garnered a large, rabid, though specific audience, an indie-rock fanbase who can see the truth in the visuals Smith conjures. Film director Gus Van Sant was an early fan of his solo work, using many songs from either/or to underscore the drama of his 1997 film Good Will Hunting. The soundtrack spawned the Academy Award-nominated “Miss Misery”, which led to an Oscar night performance, wedged between Trisha Yearwood and Celine Dion, of all people. During his award show performance, Smith looked as out of place and fragile as his song did, amongst the other nominees and their big, insincere songs. Overnight, the press tried to fit him with the mantle of (reluctant) spokesman for a young, seemingly lost generation.
Elliott Smith had already addressed this on either/or. On “Pictures of Me”, he sings, “So sick and tired of all these / Pictures of me / Completely wrong / Totally wrong / . . . Everybody’s dying just to get the disease”. Smith has no interest in the attention he gets, or in the ensuing fame. He may be putting his life out there for the scrutiny of all, but he stills wants his privacy. This reluctance to play the game of celebrity is furthered in “Angeles”, where “Picking up the ticket / Shows there’s money to be made / Go on and lose the gamble / That’s the history of the trade”. But diatribes against fame and the press aren’t the only topics on Smith’s mind. His songs of heartache rival anyone else’s, and with his whisper-thin voice, threatening to break at any moment (though it never does), the emotions on either/or are palpable.
Whether it’s a failing relationship going nowhere (“And you don’t get upset about it / No not anymore / There’s nothing wrong / That wasn’t wrong before” from “No Name no. 5”) or failure to acknowledge his own undoing (“Nobody broke your heart / You broke your own / Cos you can’t finish what you start” from “Alameda”), Smith’s subjects are a bundle of insecurities, writ large. There is an equal amount of anxiety and optimism on the album’s closer, “Say Yes”, a song that signals a light at the end of the tunnel. The man who earlier sang “You can do what you want to / Whenever you want to / Though it doesn’t mean a thing / Big nothing” (“Ballad of Big Nothing”), starts “Say Yes” with the most positive sentiments of the entire album, yet it’s quickly tempered with Smith’s own uncertainty of the situation. This back and forth of conflicted emotion continues throughout the song, where a passage like “It’s always been / Wait and see / A happy day / And then you pay / And feel like shit / The morning after” can be followed immediately with “But now I feel changed around / And instead of falling down / I’m standing up / The morning after”.
Elliott Smith has proven to be one of the top singer-songwriters of his generation, and continues to write and record increasingly more intricate and diverse records. His move to major label Dreamworks after the success of either/or signaled a return to proper recording studios (the majority of Smith’s first three releases were recorded in various homes on limited recording equipment). He has since released the critically acclaimed albums XO and Figure 8, and has another ready to be released in 2002 (which will see a return to an indie label). Broader in musical scope and instrumentation, these records contrast the earlier work while retaining his signature vocals and personal, melancholy lyrics. He is still a deeply conflicted man, and continues to exorcise his personal demons through song. either/or was the album that broke out Smith to a very dedicated and committed audience that will continue to support him in his career, and hopefully one day he’ll have enough faith in his own potential to have faith in that.