A Look Into Elliott Smith’s Either/Or

Image via Wikipedia

Image via Wikipedia

Gwendolyn Woods, Editor

Classic 90s album, Either/Or is close to a perfect album in many people’s opinions, touching on subjects such as alcohol and drug abuse, relationships, and abusive childhood. Elliott Smith lived in Portland, Oregon for most of his life, and wrote and produced many of his songs there. He even has a song, “Alameda,” named after the street in Portland as well as “Rose Parade,” which is a classic parade that is held yearly. Either/Or is Elliott Smiths’ fourth album, released in 1997. This album was an inspiration to many popular artists that we see in the media today such as Sufjan Stevens, Phoebe Bridgers, Bright Eyes, Ray LaMontagne, Julien Baker, Death Cab For Cutie, and many more. Elliott, who died at the early age of 34, made a huge impact on the music industry. Elliott had multiple songs in the classic movie, Good Will Hunting, which helped him gain that platform he has today. With his soothing instrumentals and amazing voice, it is no surprise why this is known to be one of the best albums of the 90s. Elliott’s music was inspired by musicians such as Nick Drake, The Beatles, and Bob Dylan. This album still is one of the best indie records of all time, Elliott touches on serious subjects that are personal to him and relatable to others making the impact of the album insane. 

The album starts with the track, “Speed trials;” this song was recorded on a 4-track cassette, which makes the song have a unique haunting sound to it. This song in particular was recorded in a small apartment in Portland, Oregon where Elliott grew up. The sound of this song is super important and goes perfectly with the lyrics of the song as well as the meaning behind it. Listeners may have a hard time figuring out if this is a sad song or a happy one. The first verse starts describing a “cathedral with the glass stained black,” and “high notes that echo back,” creating amazing imagery to the song. The chorus makes a comment about a “brief smile” crossing one’s face that seems to be insignificant. The subject of the song seems to be happy to be “running,” until it turns out they are just running in place, going nowhere. Though at the end of the song the subject breaks free and because of this, is now “running all over the place.” This song strongly starts off the album with a theme that is relevant throughout the rest of the album which is, “running” back to old habits and having little control over what happens in life. 

Songs such as, “Ballad of Big Nothing” and “Between the Bars,” touch on one of the most significant themes in this album which is substance abuse, whether that is drug or alcohol addiction. “Big Ballad of Nothing” is set in a parade in Portland, you can infer this by the lyric, “Around the floral parade,” this particular parade is also brought up in the song, “Rose Parade.” Addiction is something that Elliott struggled with throughout his life, “you can do what you want to, whenever you want to / you can do what you want to, there’s no one to stop you.” This particular lyric explains how one is free to do what they want to, but is living a drug-filled life something one should be proud of? In this song, he describes someone who is up all night drinking and doing drugs on the verge of getting hospitalized and overdosing from drug addiction. The next song on the album, “Between the Bars,” explains the power of addiction. There are many ways a listener may analyze this song, but the most popular analysis is that the alcohol is “speaking” to him and tells him, “forget all about the pressure of the days.” Alcohol seems like a way out of Elliott’s troubles, letting him “forget” the pressure his life may bring him. The end of the song describes how he is in an inescapable cycle of drinking, when it ends it begins again. The lyrics read, “Push and shove and won’t bend to you will / I’ll keep them still,” this lyric literally fulfills this cycle flowing seamlessly into the intro again. 

Another theme that is prominent in Either/Or is Elliott’s internal struggle with getting famous, moving to Los Angeles, and the anxiety that comes with that. In the song “Pictures of me,” Elliott sings the lyrics, “Everyone is dying to get the disease.” This lyric is one of Elliott’s most famous lyrics and one may relate it to any context they may choose, but in this particular song, it is about fame. Everyone so desperately wants to become famous and get recognized for their art, but don’t realize how tiring and damaging it is once you do get that recognition. The song “Angeles” talks about his struggle moving from Portland to LA and how it affected him. Elliott went from working with little indie records labels in Portland to working with Dreamworks Records, which was one of the biggest record labels at the time. Elliott describes his struggle with the change as well as the fear of losing himself and his original sound. 

Elliott’s last song on the album, “Say Yes” is a fan favorite and a beautifully written song about heartbreak and a short-lived relationship. This song is presumably about Joanna Bolme and how he was in love with her and wanted her back. Although “Say Yes” is one of Elliott’s simplest pieces, it is honest and that’s why fans are so connected with it. Although this song is hopeful, it is one of the most heart-wrenching records on the album for listeners, Elliott was hopeful, all while also doubtful that his hope would be justified, leaving Elliott unprotected and completely vulnerable. “Say Yes” indicates a possible joy to be had at the end of an extremely emotional record. 

Either/Or had a huge impact on the indie music scene during the 90s, being such an honest and emotional record along with soothing instrumentals is attractive and keeps the listener wanting more. Elliott is still to this day a huge inspiration for many artists and is very loved and missed. Either/Or is a heartfelt and heartbreaking album about substance abuse, childhood, and broken relationships. It has a long-lasting effect on the listeners and a sense of nostalgia and comfort within each song. It is no surprise why this album is so important to so many people and so important to the music scene in general. A classic 90s album, I recommend Either/Or to anyone, you will not be disappointed.