I Can't Believe It's Not Better #Two: Elliott Smith's Either/Or

Last week’s inaugural ICBINB post sets forth a vision of American middle class adolescence probably not limited to my own experience: tumult, both real and imagined. Largely imagined, I’d say. There seemed to be a lot of stress back then, but, thinking of it, nothing worth stressing over. Why? My best guess is our cultural formations after 9/11: when music and TV staged either shrieking dramaturgy or the protective rainbow of manic hysteria. 24 and Spongebob come to mind. And the formative ones (hello!) internalized it. You can argue, and I’d agree, that’s one reason why modern slang is an orgy of vaguely morbid superlatives: “I DIED!” “OMG this Beyonce track is LIFE.” “I can’t even. Like, I am physically unable to even.” And so forth. Add your own examples in the comments.

Sneering little jerk I was, I fancied myself (except for the Spongebob) at a remove from much of this. I was… an intellectual! I had ideas. I read books. I listened to Nick Drake, for chrissakes. You dig, man? This was roughly eleventh grade - about the time young men confuse a truth for the truth, and in turn become flagrant ideologues. For me, it was a dram of Walden and what little I could comprehend in Sartre. I described myself as a hedonistic nihilist in a class paper - much to the horror of my English teacher, who to that point found me otherwise agreeable. How you glean hedonism from Walden isn’t clear now, but it sure was then.

Elliott Smith found me in the middle of this moment, and his most notable album, whatever its worth now, once sulked from the core of my sumptuous paradigms. Which is why I can’t, and shouldn’t, look back without cringing the fuck out like I opened my eyes inside a giant lemon.

The circumstances were simply perfect. Introduction to Either/Or was made by the guy who’d already proffered up Walden, a kind of hippie come-lately who spent long afternoons roaming the woods across from the gas station he now works at, having failed college from a few too many peanut butter and mushroom sandwiches. You could say he was my guru. We both found Smith's mysterious 'suicide' abundantly and beguilingly tragic, manners which fit like disgusting skin gloves for two douche bags.

Anyway, as to the album: its title declared no lack of undue pretension - and further signaled a Kierkegaard Sparknotes I could arm myself with for pitched battle against, I don’t know, conservatives in AP American History.

Without a working knowledge of even the worst in Rilke or, let’s say, Leonard Cohen - I found Elliott Smith untrammeled in the methods of English. He quickly became my favorite poet. And while that’s a heap of sad shit right there, certain passages can still grip:

He's pleased to meet you underneath the horse

In the cathedral with the glass stained black

Singing sweet high notes that echo back

To destroy their master


Someone's always coming around here, trailing some new kill

Says I've seen your picture on a hundred dollar bill

And what's a game of chance to you, to him is one of real skill

So glad to meet you


If even those examples try your faith in me, forgive. I’m trying to be generous to the guy… and myself. Anyway, it’s a damn shame the rest of his forays into verse are puddle jumps for the ruined young heroin addict, because this junkie could play a guitar. Every song here - and to be honest - most of his songs across his discography burrow like morose, apologetic little earworms. It’s because of his signature sound: lengthy and often complicated melodies that would be sweet in nearly any key but the ones he’s chosen. It explains what so many other critics fail to understand about the guy: that despite a kind of butcher’s floor of contextual rancor, the music uplifts rather than drags.

Yet because he doesn’t sing so much as pout audibly, his choruses tend to leave giant hooks hanging without any meat. That’s when he fails the hardest. For instance, in the aptly titled “No Name No. 5,” his guitar is more or less beating the shit out of him - mixed as it is far too naked for far too long, before a drum steps in around the second minute to break it up. And if it weren’t for a haunting, uh, theremin (?) in “Angeles,” there’d be almost nothing to help distinguish the artist from his strumming.

So it shouldn’t surprise anyone that the new man I am enjoys the tracks on which he bothered to invite the fucking band. “Speed Trials” doesn’t exactly rock, but it maximizes energy, lyricism, and arrangement to surround a perfect movement on guitar. If “Ballad of Big Nothing” disappoints lyrically on the smack-nihilist tip, it at least picks its ass up off the floor before descending again into inevitable dread. “Pictures of Me” does the unthinkable in biting a country rhythm in the service of actual singing. “Rose Parade” might be the closest thing to a happy melody - or maybe it’s just gorgeous… again, hard to tell. Either way, it’d be nothing without the band.

You know what all of this means, don’t you? From A Basement On The Hill, the controversial posthumous number given the negative Spector overdub by Rob Schnapf, is a better album. It might even be a great one. Check it out after listening to my little homebrew here: Either/Or:  Little of This/Little of That