Many artists can have a full career without ever reaching their tipping point—that crucial moment when the small snowball of acclaim and recognition you’ve been able to cultivate finally crests the mountain, or hill, or cliff, or wherever you happen to imagine yourself in this analogy, and at long last, begins rolling downhill. By the time 1997 rolled around, Elliott Smith had been kicking around the Portland music scene for nearly a decade, and had built up a solid reputation for himself as both a solo artist and as member of a collective. He recorded Either/Or, his third solo album, during the waning last days of his band Heatmiser, at various locations around the city. Kill Rock Stars released two singles from the album in ‘97, “Speed Trials” and “Ballad of Big Nothing,” but the album failed to chart.
A mostly inauspicious beginning to what must have been an incredibly surreal year for Smith, as once acclaimed director and fellow Portlandian Gus Van Sant used several songs from the album in Good Will Hunting, Smith was immediately caught up in the whirlwind of Oscar buzz that the movie unexpectedly generated, culminating in a now-legendary Academy Awards performance just a year after Either/Or’s release. (He missed out on the Best Original Song award to “My Heart Will Go On,” but the very fact that he shared the same category with Celine Dion’s Titanic ballad is still just as insane today as it was 20 years ago.) So, yes, Either/Or most certainly represented Elliott Smith’s tipping point, when his popularity expanded from the niche that he’d been able to carve out in the Pacific Northwest into international territory. It made Elliott Smith transform from a rock star into a Rock Star.
But was there ever an unlikelier figure for that stage than Smith? Everything about him, his understatedness, his aloofness, even the way he sang, his voice gently floating above the music like a withheld whisper, as if there was something bigger and grander inside that was trying to escape and he was struggling to keep it contained, an act more of suppression than expression; it all suggested someone who was more inclined to shrink from the spotlight than embrace it. Perhaps more than any artist of the era, Smith embodied that mysterious introverted artist dichotomy of seeming to both desperately want and desperately not want to be seen and heard. That duality is a constant theme throughout his songwriting in general, but especially on Either/Or. Even when you remove lyrics from the equation, you can still hear it in the ever-present notes of pain that lie behind the beautiful pop melodies and shimmering textures, in the spaces between sounds. That’s pretty esoteric—but Smith can inspire that in you.
Smith had a singular ability to present moments from his life, like a faded polaroid.
The balancing act between darkness and levity is a struggle that every singer/songwriter has to fight to maintain, but no one was as adept at it as Elliott Smith. He made the difficult act of writing songs about alienation in a way that’s not alienating seem effortless. Throughout Either/Or he often writes from a second person perspective, perhaps allowing him to retain some ironic distance from the stark portrayals of his own insecurities and failings. He sets himself up as an inflatable punching clown that he can repeatedly abuse in a way that doesn’t sound like morose self-pity. For example, there’s a chance that the protagonist of “Alameda” is based on some local figure that he either knew or conjured up, but it’s just as likely that he used the second person device to cast himself as a sort of solitary stranger of Sergio Leone westerns, transported to the streets of mid-90’s Portland, wandering through town with nothing but his regrets. It’s one of the clearest depictions of his way of seeing himself and the world around him. Keeping his friends at arm’s length, never allowing anyone to truly see him, for if no one can get close to him, no one can hurt him. In other words, “If you’re alone it must be you that wants to be apart”
He had a Springfield-esque way of populating his songs with these types of poor and downtrodden characters, often as avatars for himself, but “Ballad of Big Nothing” suggests that there’s a certain freedom that comes with letting yourself hit rock bottom. After all, when you’ve reduced yourself to a wretched figure nodding in an alley, free from your familial ties and life responsibilities, “You can do what you want to, there’s no one to stop you.”
Smith had a singular ability to present moments from his life, like a faded polaroid. “Rose Parade” makes no attempt to glamorize his existence but instead creates beautiful images from the ennui and desperation. “Tripped over a dog with a choke chain collar… Traded a smoke for a food stamp dollar.” “Say Yes” takes the air of despair that sometimes permeates his lyrics and becomes an inspiring ode to soldiering through the very worst things life has to offer you. In “No Name No. 5,” he describes the happy face we put on for those that know us, gradually fading as the room slowly empties, leaving you free to be miserable without the crushing need to pretend to be someone you’re not.
Although Either/Or was the catalyst that propelled Smith to levels of stardom that he probably never imagined possible, he never fully embraced the role of international star, continuing to put out albums of understated, quirky, rock-tinged pop until his shocking and tragic death in 2003. The exact circumstances of his last hours remain shrouded in mystery and speculation, which is perhaps fitting for an artist whose work always felt like the tip of an iceberg only displaying a brief glimpse of the massive structure beneath the surface. He left behind an enduring legacy, and Either/Or just might be its crown jewel.