Either/Or is Elliott Smith Sharing Himself with the World
By Kelly Dearmore
It's understandable to now view Elliott Smith's 1997 breakthrough LP, Either/Or, through a tragic filter. As is often the case with great works by artists taken from us at a young age, the songwriter’s final record for seminal PNW indie label Kill Rock Stars has seen its cultural appreciation grow tenfold in the 17 years since his passing. It’s worth noting, though, that Smith’s third solo effort was treasured by critics and fans from the moment it was unveiled in February ‘97.
For good reason. Either/Or is a marked step up in musical craftsmanship from 1994’s Roman Candle and 1995’s Elliott Smith, both incredible records in their own right. His double-tracked vocals lend a hauntingly harmonic atmosphere to “2:45 AM” and “Angeles,” while a delicate sweetness pervades finale “Say Yes.” Despite Smith’s simplistic reputation as a wordy folkie, there’s plenty for six-string slingers to appreciate - like the radio-friendly “Cupid’s Tale” or the crawling, understated “Alameda.”
“The Portland singer-songwriter's tunes are luminously orchestrated within a fragile framework of voices, guitars and percussion,” wrote Greg Kot of the Chicago Tribune upon the album’s release. “It’s dreamy and extreme,” said NME’s Stuart Baillie at the time. More recently, Rolling Stone named Either/Or the 216th greatest record of all-time, praising its “low-fi whisper and gritty, sepia-toned lyrics.”
Indeed, Either/Or was a big deal before the new millennium eventually gave way to Smith’s final days. There’s absolutely no disputing this album provided the former Heatmiser frontman with the most pivotal moments for his career. Acclaimed director Gus Van Sant was so enamored with the LP that he not only included a few of its gems in Good Will Hunting, but he also commissioned Smith to write the one-off song that would send his name, voice and image into the celebrity stratosphere - “Miss Misery.” That’s when the major labels came knocking, leading to the fantastic follow-up, XO, being released on DreamWorks in 1998.
In a 2017 interview with the New York Times, recording engineer Larry Crane noted that his collaborator’s appearance at the 1998 Academy Awards was “kind of when we lost him.” “He wasn’t our little Elliott treasure anymore,” he bemoaned. “We had to share him with the world.”
Maybe Elliott Smith never figured out how to adapt to life after Either/Or. One thing’s for certain, though. Over two decades on, Either/Or is every bit the masterstroke it was when he gifted it to the world on that cold winter’s day.
We're thrilled to offer the Bandbox exclusive edition of Either/Or on translucent orange vinyl! It comes with a 16-page, full-color Elliott Smith zine featuring a career retrospective and rare photos.