Autobiographical Order No. 202: Elliott Smith – either/or

It’s hard not to get kind of personal when talking about Elliott Smith. On many different occasions, I’ve said his album either/or is my favorite album of all time, and that’s more or less still true. I don’t listen to it as often as I used to, and since I’ve come to regard it so highly, I’ve also discovered many other albums that elicit similar emotional responses or levels of enjoyment. After all, Baroness is the only band that inspired me to get a tattoo.

I obtained Elliott Smith’s either/or with the same gift certificate I used to pick up the Japandroids album in my last blog, though I first bought a CD copy in 1998. Fun fact: It was shortly after I got a driver’s license and wanted to do independent teenager things like go record shopping with my friends. The friend that I went with, in this case, I later started dating in college and then married. Almost everyone else in high school I’ve more or less lost touch with, probably for the better. I might have more to say about that later, but in any case, this wasn’t necessarily anything out of the ordinary. Just a sunday record shopping trip. The clerks were a little disappointed when I brought the empty jewel case to the counter, though: They were listening to that album.

The funny thing about albums that mean so much to you and are so ingrained in your memory? You don’t think about buying new copies of them. At least I often don’t go there immediately. I mean, I still don’t have a copy of OK Computer on vinyl, though with the big fancy reissue coming out in July that’ll certainly change soon. But there I was at M-Theory, a copy of either/or in front of me and it was settled.

I firmly believe from front to back this is a perfect album. I may not necessarily treat every song like a highlight; I probably listen to “Punch and Judy” the least, though that doesn’t make it an inferior song. But then again I love “Cupid’s Trick,” the noisy rock song, and that one always fits in strangely with Smith’s oeuvre. Still, there are so many amazing tracks. “Pictures of Me” was an early favorite of mine, as was “Speed Trials,” the opening track. “Between the Bars” is a beautiful heartbreaker, and “Alameda” is one of the songs that kind of proves Elliott Smith’s whole attempt at sounding more like a band than a singer/songwriter coffeehouse guy successful. And I’ve always thought it’d be fun to cover “2:45 A.M.” and make it a seven-inch with a cover of Sleater-Kinney’s “A Quarter to Three” on the flipside.

A couple of songs on either/or have even deeper connections. Back in 2001 I saw Smith perform at the Sunset Junction Street Fair in L.A., one of four times I saw him live. It was at a particularly bad time for him personally, during what seemed like a period when his addiction was getting the better of him. He was forgetting a lot of songs and was struggling overall. People were shouting requests, and he was kind of suggesting he just play covers. Several songs were aborted, and later on in the set he seemed like he was getting a little more confident and decided to try some of them again. “Did I play Angeles earlier and then stop?” he asked. When the crowd confirmed it, he gave it another shot, and right before the second chorus, there was a very brief pause that seemed almost like an eternity. And then he picked it up and finished the song. It was one of the most dramatic moments I ever remember seeing at a concert, and while it’s the kind of show that most people would probably prefer not to remember, it was powerful and it stuck with me.

The other song that tugs at the heartstrings most is “Say Yes,” which my wife requested be on our wedding playlist. I was a little confused by it because I didn’t think it was necessarily a story with a happy ending, but she said she didn’t hear it that way, and while it might be a story that’s open-ended, it’s a hopeful one, and perhaps the simplest love song on the album, even though it’s not that simple. That’s stuck with me, and I hear it differently now.

I’ve written a lot about this album recently, so I’ll stop here. But I’ll leave you with this: Every time I think maybe something else has usurped this album as my favorite of all time, I listen to it again and am reminded of why it’s not going anywhere.

Rating: 10.0

Sound Quality: Great

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