The Nebraska native passed away in October 2003 by suicide, although theories and conspiracies about his demise have continued to circulate for the last 16 years. Whatever the truth, one thing is undeniable - the power and beauty of the music he left behind. Smith released 5 albums during his lifetime and one of them, 1997s Either/Or, remains the benchmark for all indie-folk and lo-fi artists 22 years later. So, what makes it so great?
Unlike so many of his contemporaries - the likes of Jeff Buckley for example - Smith wore his influences on his sleeve. Of these idols, his adoration for The Beatles and The Beach Boys are the most telling in terms of his own musical output. Smith's lyrics could have been written by late '60s Lennon-McCartney (albeit on a particularly sad day) and his hooks and melodies sound like outtakes straight from Pet Sounds. Despite this, Smith's sound was something completely unique, because it came right from the heart. He took his troubles, blended them with witty observations and poured them down the microphone.
Either/Or is, in many ways, the culmination of everything Smith was building to with his previous albums - the hopelessness filled Roman Candle (1994) and the heroin feuled Elliott Smith (1995). He maintains these themes on Either/Or but drops much as the self-pity and, by increasing his production values, allows his (somewhat) lighter, less bitter and more vulnerable side to come through.
Alongside the nihilistic observations about drugs and LA life are themes of love and whimsy simply not there before. His guitar-playing skills improved greatly and by recording his vocals and guitar separately he allowed the full range of his tremendous, melodious and fragile voice to come through in clean harmonies.
Either/Or runs 36 minutes and 32 seconds long and consists of 12 songs, all of which are wonderful in their own way and non of which can be called 'fillers'. With that said, here are four of my personal highlights.
First up is my favourite track on the album, the high tempo, repatative drum-beat-driven 'Speed Trials'. Featuring Smith's highest octave vocal performance on the record, this song showcases Smith's feelings about fame and the hungriness of narcissistic, druggy LA types. Anger doesn't have to be shouted or aggressive to be effective (as Lou Read, another influence, showed).
My second choice is the heavily Beatles influenced ode to love - 'Say Yes'. Following the rise and fall of a relationship is common place in song lyrics, but few love songs manage to capture the joy and fear that state of mine brings about as well as this 2:20 track.
My third choice is '2:45 AM'. This song is simple and beautiful. It tells the story of a man awake in the middle of the night and all the problems on his mind after a day of heavy drinking and drug use. It's simple but highly effective.
Lastly, no review of Either/Or would be complete without mentioning 'Angeles'. It is one of Smith's best known and most beloved songs and it's easy to see why. Featuring fast-plucking overlaid on ethereal keyboards this critique of the mainstream music industry sees Smith refuse to sell his soul to an LA record executive. Smith sings on 'Angeles'. "Someone's always coming around here trailing some new kill, says I've seen your picture on a $100 bill".
Elliott Smith never did sell out, and while his reluctance to play live meant he never reached the heights he deserved to in life, in death his audience found him.
Even if you haven't heard any of Smith's albums, you will have heard some of the songs from Either/Or if you have seen the Gus Van Stant hit Good Will Hunting (also 1997). The film featured the songs 'Between the Bars' , 'Angeles' and 'Say Yes', alongside a song intended for the album but that surprisingly didn't make the cut, the heartbreaking 'Miss Misery' . That track earned Smith an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song in 1998. He lost out to 'My Heart Will Go On' which was a bigger tragedy then the sinking of the Titanic itself.
Listening to a few songs on a movie soundtrack is not enough to truly understand his music. Before you leave university you must, must listen to some Elliott Smith. It may make some of you feel down, but for most, it will be a transformative experience.