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Music

The moment Elliott Smith stepped into the light on 'Either/Or'

@TylerGolsen
Elliott Smith - 'Either/Or'
9.2

Heatmiser were flaming out. In the alt-rock gold rush that occurred once Nirvana hit it big, a scrappy and weirdly folk-centred four-piece from Portland, Oregon were snapped up by Virgin Records in the hopes that maybe they could be a breakthrough success as well. Critics seemed taken by the fact that co-frontman Neil Gust was gay, and that his more aggressive material was largely powering the band’s sound. Hiding in the back was another singer/guitarist who seemed quieter and more introspective.

Could Heatmiser be the next Nirvana? No shot in hell. They probably couldn’t have even been the next Silverchair. That’s not because they had bad material – in fact, the band’s final album, 1996’s Mic City Sons, has fantastic tracks on it. Gust’s ‘Rest My Head Against the Wall’ and Smith’s ‘See You Later’ probably could have been hits on 120 Minutes, if not for the fact that Heatmiser imploded before the album even saw its release date. That quiet co-frontman already had two studio albums to his name, but he also had recently lost his job at a bakery. How was Elliott Smith going to survive?

The answer was by going on unemployment, recording in houses, and focusing on his songwriting. Bouncing between Portland studios, some professional and some in friends’ basements, Smith gathered up thirteen acoustic tracks that could be recorded quickly after Heatmiser’s dissolution. Most tracks featured only an additional guitar overdub to compliment Smith’s fingerpicked acoustic and whisper-thin vocal delivery.

Sitting at the immediate end of Smith’s lo-fi origins and right before his lush, major label album crafting that took over his final records, Either/Or is the platonic ideal of an Elliott Smith record. It’s not his most charming or audacious record, but it could very well be his best.

Tellingly, Smith seems to be aware that people were paying attention to him on Either/Or, perhaps for the first time. ‘Pictures of Me’ is a prickly indictment on public image, with Smith grousing that, “Everybody’s dying just to get the disease.” Upon getting invited to the eponymous ‘Rose Parade’, Smith insist: “When they clean the street, I’ll be the only shit that’s left behind.” Already gaining a reputation for sad-sack lyrics, Smith never let rubberneckers impede on his incisive word crafting or his often brutally dark honesty.

Very few tracks expand beyond Smith’s basic setup. When they did, it was Smith himself playing all of the instruments. ‘Cupids Tricks’ and ‘2:45’, strategically placed at the end of the album, seem to point towards the future arrangements of albums like XO and Figure 8. The drums on album opener ‘Speed Trials’ sound like shoeboxes banged against the floor, but by the midpoint of ‘No Name No. 5’, they’ve expanded to a rich fullness.

Smith burned through those thirteen tracks about as quickly and efficiently as possible. But just before the final cut, Smith decided not to include the album’s title track in the song list. What was left were twelve impassioned, occasionally depressing, and strangely curious compositions that seemed extremely personal but also completely at arm’s length. Smith’s voice caused the listener to lean in, but the words seemed like he was trying to shut them out.

Whether he actually wanted them to, the world was now listening. Director Gus Van Sant became enthralled with ‘Between the Bars’, the haunting album centrepiece. He decided that Smith would make the perfect voice to help bring his new film, Good Will Hunting, to life. The story from there gets extremely complicated, and nothing in Smith’s life would ever be as simple as they sounded on Either/Or.

But for one moment in time, Smith was caught in ember as life seemed relatively straightforward. Either/Or is the final time when Smith could complain about intrusions without ever really knowing how intrusive the outside world could really be.