Elliott Smith’s influence is all around us; from the work of rising indie stars like Phoebe Bridgers and Clairo, to the wave of acoustic, guitar musicians who dominated the charts in the 2010s. ‘Either/Or’ – Smith’s finest record – is a testament to why his influence is so great. There’s a beautiful simplicity to ‘Either/Or’; Smith with little more than a guitar and his lilting, fragile voice sings of dark truths, hopelessness and a reluctant resilience.
The understated instrumentation and production here puts the spotlight on Smith’s lyricism which is consistently top-notch; the ambiguous ‘Speed Trials’ contains a great metaphor to represent nothing in life exciting or surprising you anymore (“When the socket’s not shock enough”), while Smith demonstrates his poetic prowess on ‘Alameda’, with a haunting line about closing yourself off to protect from hurt: “For your own protection over their affection / Nobody broke your heart / You broke your own cause you can’t finish what you start”.
Labelled ‘Mr Misery’, ‘Either/Or’ is undoubtedly a bleak record, but it’s never a drag and is kept afloat by Smith’s dark sense of humour and the glimpses of hope that peak through on a handful tracks. ‘Ballad of Big Nothing’ is a tongue-in-cheek tune depicting a drug addict with startling clarity: “The helpless little thing with the dirty mouth who’s always got something to say /….pinpoint eyes full of smouldering anger”. ‘Between The Bars’ meanwhile is both beautiful and loving and, sombre and heart-breaking all at once; an ode to the power of alcohol; which will “keep them still” – them being Smith’s various demons and dark thoughts.
The best track here, the closer ‘Say Yes’, meanwhile is simultaneously the saddest and happiest song here. It is at once incredibly self-deprecating (“I’m damaged bad at best”) and yet displays a clear-eyed optimism missing throughout the rest of the album (“I’m in love with the world / Through the eyes of a girl”, “Instead of falling down / I’m standing up the morning after”). It’s the tale of someone who finds a reason to be hopeful but doesn’t believe they’re good enough to hold onto it. It’s an expert piece of song-writing, just like the rest of ‘Either/Or’.
Best Tracks: All
Worst Tracks: None