Friday, October 12, 2007

Unlisted: Either/Or

Band: Elliott Smith
Album: Either/Or
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: It isn't a big seller and the RS editors are dopes, so I see why they don't love it.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: This album is a big part of the emo 2000s. Smith's songwriting and vocal influence scores of bands, including Jimmy Eat World, Death Cab for Cutie, Iron & Wine and almost any band Zach Braff likes.
Best song: Just about any of these songs is excellent, though, "Say Yes" is one of my favorite songs. Also, "Rose Parade."
Worst song: "Punch And Judy" is the weakest song on the record, but it's still pretty great.
Is it awesome?: It may be my favorite album of all time.

It's hard to write about, probably, my favorite album of all time. I don't really know how to do it, in fact.

Music is the soundtrack to our lives and a lot of what we desire in our music is to have something speak for us. We use music to define us in the same way we use fashion and movies and everything else we consume.

Music holds a special place, though, because it not only keeps the words -- something quite literal -- close to our hearts (you can sing your favorite song pretty easily), but the actual music reflects a part of us that we seek to be.


Musically, "Either/Or" isn't anything particularly revolutionary or exciting; The slightly angular acoustic guitars, the whispered vocals and the sparse percussion is nothing new. In fact, the artist Smith is most compared to (Nick Drake) did a lot of the same stuff, thirty years ago.

Still, it was effective when Drake did it because it works. For DYI singer/songwriter stuff, it works really well. For Smith, it's perfect. His later work featured a lot of studio dicking around and all it did was take away from the music. On "Either/Or," though, he kept it simple.


Elliott Smith is probably my favorite songwriter, largely for his ability to translate a rhythm of everyday speech into song. Too many lyrics are simply love/above or one/fun or play/day. You know, it's the sort of thing you find in a rhyming dictionary or in an *nSync song or something. The kind of thing Swedes write.

I've written before (a long time ago, actually) that "Either/Or" is one of the five albums I wish I'd written. In it, I gave the reasoning that I still believe, on some level, for my love for "Either/Or" and its lyrics:

either/or is minutiae. it's those small things. it's not about breaking up, or killing someone or drama, or excitement. it's about life. day in and day out. elliott smith is the thing inside of us that is depressed, but not manic.

While I use that to explain "Either/Or," I now can realize that Smith's entire songwriting catalog is largely reflective of this trait. Whether he's writing about heroin, politics or a "Rose Parade," the simplicity of conversation comes through in the lyrics. Sometimes, this reflects the young man that he was, as his use of profanity is the harder edge, as in "Rose Parade":

The trumpet has obviously been drinking
Because hes fucking up even the simplest lines
Id say its a sight thats quite worth seeing
Its just that everyones interest is stronger than mine
And when they clean the street I'll be the only shit thats left behind

There's a real reflection of "how people speak" in there, more than the pop music that we're all used to. Certainly, more than the Nick Drakes-wannabes that populate charts most of the time.


I have five favorite songs. They are (in no particular order):
  1. "Lost Cause" by Beck

  2. "Good Morning, Captain" by Slint

  3. "Hunted By A Freak" by Mogwai

  4. "Tin Cans And Twine" by Tortoise

  5. "Say Yes" by Elliott Smith

"Hunted By A Freak" and "Tin Cans And Twine" are both basically instrumentals ("Hunted By A Freak" has some of the best vocoder work ever). "Good Morning Captain" is a narrative about a seawreck that is basically my favorite dropped-D guitar work. Ever. "Lost Cause" is sad and depressing and, generally, I'm a pretty melancholy dude.

"Say Yes" holds a place there not because it's depressing or happy or about a breakup or because it's sweet or because it's complex. It's there because it's all of those things.

Breakups are never easy and the first reaction of anyone is probably to act like a total dickweed (Smith's "A Question Mark," from "XO," is that side of him). It's easy to get angry. It's easy to feel betrayed and it's easy to direct that anger towards someone.

But, "Say Yes" isn't a breakup song about that. "Say Yes" has a protagonist who has simply submitted to sadness. S/He is not manic. S/He is depressed. There's an explanation for the whole breakup ("situations get fucked up, turned around, sooner or later'), but the protagonist doesn't turn it

In fact, the main character of the song is growing up -- "I grew up, I didn't know" -- and learning. It's, on some level, a song about maturation in light of relationships. Something, I'm sure, we've all gone through.

Smith used to introduce the song live as "a happy song," which fits it well. It's not sad, it's not angry. It's melancholy and it's tortured and there's some happiness in there. The growth is great and something, I think, we could all take something from.


"Either/Or" is who I wish to be and who I sometimes see myself as. Musicians don't feel a deepper range of emotions than us non-creative types, but many of them do know how to put those feelings into words better than the rest of us. "Either/Or" is that, in a lot of ways. It's a band blessed with a keen gift for putting the melancholy into words. The "rut" and the "downturn" emotionally; The times when you're sad, but don't know why. Indeed, there isn't anything really all that sad about "Alameda's" lyrics. It actually sounds like a misanthrope's dream monologue:

You're all pretension
I never pay attention
Nobody broke your heart
You broke your own because you can't finish what you start

I think that's why I enjoy it so much. The element of disaffected sadness and constant disappointment by those around you (Smith's parents divorced when he was very young and he moved quite a bit as a child) is something I -- in my own overdramtic mind -- identify with.

Again, it's tough to write about, maybe, my favorite album of all time. But, the highest praise I can give it is this: I never turn it off and I can put it on any time. I could be driving, playing Playstation, walking to work, whatever. "Either/Or" fits like me like my favorite t-shirt. It fit when I was 16 and first heard it, it fit at 21 when I was a melodramatic college student and it fits now as a disaffected 26-year-old.

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