On the surface, Elliott Smith’s Either/Or could be mistaken as just another sad indie-folk album released during the alt-rock heyday of the nineties. But upon further inspection, Either/Or stands out due to its peculiar way of hiding — in plain sight — its troubles and melancholy under a thin coat of sweet melodies. Recorded mostly in Portland, Oregon, the hushed, no-fuzz and discreet character of Elliott Smith’s music might also hide something else: Either/Or, released on February 25, 1997, is not-so secretly one of the best albums of the nineties.
The Pacific Northwest, the nineties, and early-adulthood angst are an inseparable Holy Trinity of sorts. Some of the most documented chapters in rock music — and many of the genre’s most celebrated stars — belong to this time and place. The appeal of this triangle endures: 30 years later, the late Kurt Cobain is still the main subject of documentaries, books, best-of compilations and even hilarious lawsuits. Grunge, a term brushed off by its very protagonists, is still filling stadiums and pushing its fans to sing along to saddening lines such as “All the love gone bad / Turned my world to black,” from Pearl Jam’s “Black,” released in 1991.
But when the 28-year-old Portland-based Elliott Smith released his third album Either/Or in 1997, he probably didn’t expect to fill stadiums or add a new page to the loud guitar interplay of grunge. According to indie folklore, Smith achieved neither. When Either/Or dropped, nobody sang along to it, and legend has it that the singer’s live shows had fans petrified in silence. As for its sound, Either/Or’s 12-song run rarely relies on loud instrumentation; even the electric guitars tend to be gentle and defusing. As far as measurable statistics go, it would seem as though nobody was listening to the album at the time — Either/Or did not chart. In all these senses, it’s a record removed from its time.
Yet, Either/Or still stands as one of its era’s most perdurable albums, and it might be due to its combination of intimacy, fragility, and strong songwriting. The song “Between the Bars,” which fans have uploaded to YouTube in a one-hour looped version, has Smith rambling on his mania of jumping from bar to bar to quench his addiction to alcohol. It’s also a play on words on being a prisoner to one’s habits. As he delivers in a toned-down murmur, he hides his helplessness under a pop-tinged, catchy melody: “People you’ve been before / That you don’t want around anymore / That push and shove and won’t bend to your will / I’ll keep them still,” he sings. Either/Or navigates through this course through its 37 minutes: the melancholy and the infinite sadness lean on Smith’s lyrics, but remain well hidden under the allure of his anxious melodies.
One of Either/Or’s earliest fans was filmmaker Gus Van Sant, who invited Smith to contribute an original song for the upcoming film Good Will Hunting, released in December 1997. Good Will Hunting features three songs off Either/Or, including the ominous “Angeles,” a singer-songwriter fingerpicked track driven by Smith’s overlayed vocals and a gloomy hum. Allegedly, its lyrics refer to the binding force of the recording industry and how its executives contaminate and trivialize artists. But, given Smith’s struggle with depression and addiction, and given his death by mysterious circumstances merely six years after the release of Either/Or, it’s hard not to read “Angeles” as the words of someone grappling with life. “All your secret wishes could right now be coming true / And be forever with my poison arms around you,” he sings before giving up to a steady, haunting buzz.
In the charming film Good Will Hunting, moments before “Angeles” kicks in, a gaunt, tired-out psychologist played by Robin Williams takes a prospective patient (Matt Damon) to a park. It’s a clear day in Boston: birds chirp around, and people chatter in high spirits. When the duo sits on a bench, Williams confronts the patient, a way-too-smart and even more obnoxious kid. Days before, the kid had visited the shrink’s office and made a snarky comment about him — all because he quickly analyzed a miniature painting. “You presume to know everything about me,” the shrink scolds the boy, “because you saw a painting of mine.”
It’s too tempting to read Either/Or as the smart boy interpreted the shrink’s painting: as the personal notebook of a musician too sad to be alive yet talented enough to pour that angst into tape. Then again, almost 20 years after Smith’s death in Los Angeles, it’s better to stick to the psychologist’s advice. Either/Or is not a wide-open window into Elliott Smith’s mind. It is neither an exemplary case of the sound and spirit of the Pacific Northwest in the nineties. But, 25 years later, and thanks to Smith’s melodic prowess and soft-spoken melancholy, Either/Or is still exceptional at keeping secrets hidden in plain sight, like no other record from its time does.