No One Says Until it Shows
Elliott Smith's old touring pal, songstress Mary Lou Lord, was the first to make the obvious comparison: the whisper-quiet Portland-based songwriter had, somehow, ended up inheriting Kurt Cobain's crown. Tortured, depressed, suicidal, and a heroin addict, there were eerie similarities that went beyond their radical musical differences. Both were sweet nectar for "sad kids" everywhere; the voices of eternal adolescent angst and self-loathing.
Where Cobain wrote his mythology in faux-cryptic lyrical nonsense, Smith, however, was a straight-talker. "Situations get f**ked up," he sings, simply, on "Say Yes," the seemingly-romantic closer to his third album, Either/Or. Though the tune (which was, in subsequent years, often covered by Death Cab for Cutie) is most famous for its opening "I'm in love with the world through the eyes of a girl/who's still around the morning after" gambit, even its optimism is undermined by Smith's perpetual pessimism. "A happy day and then you pay/and feel like s**t the morning after," he later sings; safe in the knowledge that, for any self-respecting depressive, what goes up will surely come down hard.
Ballads of Big Nothing
Smith plays every instrument on Either/Or, and recorded the bulk of it himself; meaning, it's easy to hear the LP as a product of isolationism. Its bruised ballads paint Smith into that corner; these the diary-entries detailing scarred childhoods, middle-of-the-night lover's tiffs, and drowning one's sorrows.
Yet, the universality to the way Smith writes —the other figures that cross his path "he" and "you" and "she" and "baby"— that helps this piece of art transcend the artist. Putting aside Smith's now-famous litany of problems and eventual suicide (and/or homicide, depending on who you believe), one can hear not the cries-for-help of a doomed soul, but a near-perfect pop-record that was merely made by someone with problems.
Smith's hushed lullabies may be riddled with heartache and depression, abuse and self-loathing, addiction and optimism, but they're also pure, simple, defiant, and weirdly beautiful. Smith's knack for hooks and gift for melody would come to bold fruition on later albums, but here he's so low-key it somehow gets overlooked. Where hindsight may hear this as some early suicide note, Either/Or is nothing so sordid. Instead, it's an album of timeless simplicity; one bound to strike a chord with lovelorned loners for years to come.
Record Label: Kill Rock Stars
Release Date: 25 February 1997