Elliott Smith - Either / Or - Review
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critics' view

But for the assuring tape click, a cymbal is the first sound you hear. It's a red herring; Smith played every instrument. After two albums in the basement, he moved his possessions closer to Heatmiser's floor, and the songs do not suffer for it. A case has (and will) be made that this is his greatest collection of tunes; it's hard to argue with 37 minutes of taut, wounded tracks. Even the untitled tune is noteworthy: if George Harrison had been laid up in hospital with a demon, he's have written the harrowing, draggy "No Name No. 5". The night's still crushing everything, but Smith, finally, is ready to resist. "Cupid's Trick" rides a couple of seething crests to mantra-like lyrical repetition ("should've lit me up/it's my life") and madmaking guitar stasis. The solo is essentially a bar-band figure played three times, but its tossed-off mastery is startling in its own way. "Pictures of Me" pairs white-cloud organ with another remarkable build and breakdown; the brittle bridge is straight out of Three Dog Night's cover of "One", and acoustic and electric wind around each other in another glaring signpost for XO. If he gets a bit shrill in his upper register, it's bulldozed with a half-dozen lithe turns of phrase and rhyme so compressed it's practically internal.

Either/Or is also where Smith got unabashedly pretty. Or at least as close to it as he'd come: he sews profanity mines into "Say Yes," a song that's adorable and rueful at once. (The Village Voice's Pazz & Jop voters still maintained a fairly rigid distinction between songs and singles; the record placed 20th, but if we did it over, "Say Yes" might rate even higher.) Even in this winsome tale of romantic transference, he can't stop showing off, turning "see how it is" in a gorgeous little Lennon-esque eddy. With "Rose Parade," he finally lets himself into the non-metaphorical light, even if he doesn't care for it much. He chips off thick chords, parallels his vocal line, and bolsters his Adbusters cred by forgetting which battery company trademarked the pink rabbit. (Years later, he would misgender the god Shiva on Figure 8's "Son of Sam".) A mid-tempo power pop track, "Ballad of Big Nothing" splits the baleful and the bileful (the parade makes a cameo here, too), with Smith cradling his phrases like Alex Chilton, veering dangerously close to shaming.

Still, Smith's bread and butter are as nourishing as ever. "Alameda" would've been a great leadoff: hobbling on its hollow leg, trailed by ghostly backing vocals but haunted by organ. "Nobody broke your heart/ You broke your own because you can't finish what you start" is a great couplet, but better yet is "Face down/ Bow to the champion". Like "Miss Misery," "Between the Bars" was composed before its inclusion in Good Will Hunting (Elliott's circle had to pretend otherwise to satisfy Academy rules). It's also a waltz; here, Smith nearly merges with the the low-end plucking, compelling the listener to lean into his triple meanings and suddenly elongated phrasing. It was one of an incredible five-and-a-half tunes he contributed to the soundtrack, giving the orchestral fragment of "Bars" (an amusing premonition of his onstage Oscar treatment) partial credit. He wasn't anywhere near El Lay for the recording of Either/Or — Humboldt County was as far south as he got — but he proved that his talent wasn't some parochial curio to be swaddled by a scene. He was now free to pursue a fully distorted reality.

Brad Shoup
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