‘Either/Or’ is the sound of a man at the top of his game. Elliott Smith already had numerous albums to his name by the time he released ‘Either/Or’, and it shows. Though only his third solo album, he’d also released three records with the grossly underrated Portland quartet, Heatmiser. A consolidation of sorts, ‘Either/Or’ sees Smith take the essence of his previous work and refine it to diamond clarity; in the process, making the most complete record of his career. Looking at the track list now, huge swaths of the album read like the track list to a non-existent Best Of compilation. Indeed, ‘Either/Or’ undoubtedly has more signature songs on it than any other record in Smith’s discography – even the most casual of fans are likely to recognise songs such as ‘Ballad Of Big Nothing’ and ‘Between The Bars’.
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‘Either/Or’ was not a drastic change in direction for Smith, rather it was an evolution. The homespun intimacy and sparse arrangements of his previous solo work – 1994’s ‘Roman Candle’ and 1995’s ‘Elliott Smith’ – were expanded upon here to include more extensive overdubs and a more polished presentation. After the release of ‘Either/Or’, Smith would explode in popularity thanks to a surprise Grammy nomination for his song ‘Miss Misery’, featured in ‘Good Will Hunting’. This catapulted Smith into the limelight and he was quickly snapped up by major label Dreamworks (yes, they of Shrek). He’d go on to record two albums for the label: 1998’s ‘XO’ and 2000’s ‘Figure 8’. Both saw Smith move into grander territory with lush orchestration and major label sheen; thankfully none of the soul was lost though and both are stunning works; though perhaps occasionally the arrangements do veer into slightly overdramatic territory. In many ways ‘Either/Or’ perfectly bridges the gap between the intimate, lo-fi indie songwriter records that came before the grandly orchestrated, major label efforts that followed.
‘Either/Or’ is Smith’s most tightly arranged and performed record; more minimal than the occasionally cluttered ‘XO’ and ‘Figure 8’, ‘Either/Or’ has a simplicity and clarity to its arrangements that make the songs captivating and very accessible. The charming earthiness of his earlier work is lost to a more polished production on ‘Either/Or’ which essentially makes it the best of both worlds, sitting somewhere between the intimacy of ‘Elliott Smith’ and grandeur of ‘XO’. ‘Rose Parade’ is a perfect example of the level of clarity and precision Smith has reached in his song craft. The melody is immaculately presented and irresistibly strong, the arrangements and performances are subtle but hugely effective and likewise, production is discreet but it brings out the best in the songs.
The fact that most of ‘Either/Or’s’ songs are still covered, almost religiously, even twenty years on (see last year’s high profile tribute album, ‘Say Yes!’, for proof) is testament to their sheer quality. Songs like ‘Speed Trails’, ‘Alameda’ and ‘Angeles’ are all classics but importantly, the album’s lesser known moments still shine. The drowsy melancholia of ‘Punch and Judy’ is utterly charming; ‘Cupid’s Trick’ rocks out harder than anything else on the album; and ‘2:45 A.M’. is one of Smith’s finest songs.
With ‘Either/Or’s’ 20th anniversary in February, UMC have announced a 20th anniversary edition of the album. It’s a not a new idea – one was mooted for the record’s 10th anniversary but so much unreleased material was found that they ended making the double disc posthumous album ‘New Moon’ instead. In addition to a remastered version of the album, there’s a disc of bonus material and one track has already been released. ‘I Figured You Out’ is a slice of Elliott Smith gold but one that he was dismissive of himself. He said the song “sounds like the fucking Eagles” and chose not to release it. He did let friend Mary Lou Lord record a version with his help though and that rendition has long been a fan favourite, so it’s exciting to finally hear a version with Smith on vocals.
There’s still much debate over which of Elliott Smith’s albums is the best. Personally, I tend to root for either 2004’s ‘From A Basement On The Hill’ (a superb and experimental set of songs that saw Smith go off in a thousand directions at once and still managed to feel cohesive – he wanted the record to be his ‘White Album’); or ‘Roman Candle’ but each one of his records could take the top spot. Objectively, though, there’s perhaps more reason to argue ‘Either/Or’s’ merits as the best of all his albums. It’s a near impeccable collection of songs that are both simple and genius; and there’s good reason why today it’s seen a classic.