Monday, November 17, 2008

Album of the Week: Elliott Smith- Either/Or

Today was my day off for the week, so after sleeping in late and catching up on Internet nonsense I mailed a credit card bill and went to the library. Once I got home I decided to go for a walk and smoke a clove cigarette. Smoking is something I rarely do (I'm that fairy tale breed who can do it responsibly and not get addicted; yes, we do exist) but today it just felt right. No one else was out except for the cars driving by the exercise trail I use. While crossing a road, a truck full of high schoolers yelled something at me. I'm not sure if it was "smoker" or something more generally derogatory. Since I was listening to a podcast at the time, I don't know for sure. On the way home, the overcast late Fall day turned darker and darker as the sun went down. Then, it began to snow and I thought, this has been a kind of beautiful day, but also kind of sad. It seemed like something out of a short story, the way I was heckled anonymously and then it got darker and more winter-y. I wasn't feeling depressed today but it was a low key, introspective day nonetheless. When I listen to Elliott Smith, I think he's able to capture these kind of scenes and slices of life effortlessly. Everyone always fixates on how depressing his music was, but to me it always carries a kind of existential beauty to it. The way life is, you have to take the bitter with the sweet.

Either/Or was released before he became popular thanks to the soundtrack of Good Will Hunting, and so it captures Smith at a time in his life when he was still only known as a struggling singer/songwriter and ex-member of Heatmiser and not as the post-'Miss Misery' wonderkid. Continuing this transitional element to the album is the instrumentation which sits between the stripped down/acoustic sound of his first two albums and the full blown orchestration of XO and Figure 8. There's a drowsy afternoon/staying-up-too-late vibe to Either/Or that fits in with fellow 'slowcore' tagged bands like American Music Club and Red House Painters, who mix singer/songwriter/folk-isms with slow-to-mid-tempo rock a la the Velvet Underground's third album.

I've always found the album cover to be iconic, as if it were a visual representation of one of his songs. Smith sits in a wooden chair, leaned against a mirror. Graffiti is all over the place. Smith said in interviews that there were points in his life that were lived like the cliched 'starving artist', surviving on peanut butter and bread for weeks on end, and on this cover he looks it. Slouched slightly in the chair, his hair an indifferent mess covered by a hat, he clutches the very end of a cigarette between his fingers and looks out at you with neutral indifference, the famous tattoo of Ferdinand the Bull showing clear on his arm--a tough bull who would rather smell flowers than fight.

The reason that I and so many others love Elliott Smith and his music is the nuances and complexity they demonstrate for the human condition. They're full of depression, anger, jealously, bitterness, heartbreak, loneliness, and self-destruction, but there are equal measures of their opposites, too. We relate to these songs-as-stories but they aren't us just as they aren't Smith, either. An author puts some amount of himself in his work and lets himself feel along with the characters as the narrative develops but to lapse into auto-biography is threatening to cheapen the experience.

Either/Or is a brilliant album not because I've ever been walking down Alameda looking at the cracks in the sidewalk while thinking about my friends, but I've done similar things just as Smith undoubtedly has. Though the things we thought about were without a doubt entirely different, we still have lived that kind of story before. Maybe you've never been out for a walk like the one I took today and felt/thought about the exact things I did, but you can still relate. That is the genius of Elliott Smith and Either/Or specifically. If you're at all a fan of singer/songwriters, it's a must hear.

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