Elliott Smith - Either/Or (20th Anniversary Reissue)

by D R Pautsch Rating:10 Release Date:2017-03-10

The twenty years since the release of Elliot Smith's third album have given it an impossible retrospective viewpoint.  It is difficult to differentiate the music from the outcome, the myth from the legend and the lyrics from the tragedy that was to follow.  Indeed it is hard not to associate it with other works of musicians that have fallen before their time.  So approaching the re-release and hearing it fresh is a nigh impossible task when the legacy is such as that left by Either/Or and what followed.  There is also a fear that any remaster may well take away the elements that made Either/Or such a powerful album in the first place.  The intimate sound that Smith created on his third album was almost claustrophobic to listen to at times in both its sound and lyrical content.  To clean up that sound may lose all of that and more.  So it is some relief that when you listen to it on this version it feels somehow warmer in its textures and yet as intimate and claustrophobic as ever.  The hushed voice and gentle approach to many of the numbers here is intact. 

When reading anything about Smith, mentions of Cobain and Drake are bandied about with more reference to their parallel stories rather than the music.  Strip it back to the music and Smith is always far closer to The Beatles than anything else.  Indeed the legend tells the story that he listened to Magical Mystery Tour every day during the recording of this album.  The similarities are certainly there.  Not just in the double tracked vocals and instruments, there are flourishes here which just scream of The Beatles influence, the lyrical denouement towards the end of Say Yes is a perfect example of this.  However, what Either/Or shows more than anything else is an artist in transition.  This was not only the album that catapulted him to an Oscar nomination through one of the off-cuts but it gained him the major label deal he deserved.  That both would be a millstone for Smith would come afterwards.  Here you can hear the start of the shy and self-conscious artist who gradually develops from hushed vocals and acoustics to the big sounding numbers like Ballad of Big Nothing.  It’s far beyond someone ‘going electric’.  It’s someone gaining confidence during an album and sometimes a single song.  It might be the last time that an Elliott Smith album was just Elliott Smith but it’s also the last time where he didn’t consciously try to throw off the damaged and hushed singer songwriter.  There are no Son of Sam moments here where he added noise and lyrics to obscure the beauty beneath.  This is pure Smith, as powerful and raw as he ever was.  That’s not to say he wasn’t angry here.  There are moments of almost rage here that are beautifully and painfully delivered.  Pictures of Me is a sweary anti-anthem that decries Smith’s position.  He seems weary of the adulation he received at this point.  One can only wonder how he would feel after he delivered his Oscar performance and had to wear that crown every second he was in the public eye.  This seems almost prophetic of the success that was to follow.

Not only is Smith at his best with his use of tunemanship, he is also at his best when it comes to evoking a mood, sentiment and story within his lyrics.  Alameda eludes to his transition between Texas and Portland and juggling of friends as well as delivering the killer line ‘nobody broke your heart, you broke your own cos you can’t finish what you start.’  Such a damning comment of those who shun creativity has rarely, if ever, been delivered so beautifully.

The additional live tracks are both welcome and insightful.  That Smith completely loses his place at one part and is so apologetic about it can only further the myth that here was a painfully shy man forced into the limelight and struggling to please everyone.  The alternate takes and rarities are few but they are gems in themselves. This is an expanded edition that warrants the title and effort.

Of course the legacy is larger than the man.  The history greater than the moment and the outcome is sadly remembered more than the process.  Yet here, somehow is a snapshot of a man and his work that is worthy of any of that.  The cover versions that followed showed the regard many held the contents of this trove in.  Even the very woman who commented on Smith’s failure to gain that Oscar has covered him in her more artistic moments.  No single snapshot tells the story of a man, neither should it.  No single song will sum Smith and his self-destructive personality up, he was far more complex than that and to describe him as self-destructive misses the fact that he was constantly reconstructing himself. Twenty years on this is perhaps a stronger validation of the man and his work than at any other time.  The echoes may be impossible to ignore, but if you just listen to the music this is a legacy earned and an album worthy of the praise it has garnered.

Overall Rating (1)

5 out of 5 stars