In either late 2003 or early 2004, I went to go see one of my former classmates perform at Common Grounds in Arlington. Anousheh & I had been in Creative Writing together in high school & I tried to catch her gigs when I could. That night, she said she was going to play a song for a friend as a birthday present. She said the song had been written by a guy named Elliott Smith. “I think his music is very important,” she said, “Especially now.”
Then Anousheh began playing the opening bars of “Between the Bars.” (I didn’t discover the name of the song until later.) She belted out most of the first verse in her powerhouse voice before losing her place. She couldn’t finish the song, but I was spellbound by what I had heard. Who was this guy? Who wrote those lyrics? Afterward, I found out quickly who Elliott Smith was; the news of his death was still fresh. From the Basement On a Hill was released in the fall of 2004 & I bought it.
Even though I started listening at the end of Smith’s career, “Between the Bars” was my original rabbit-hole into his musical world. I’ll admit I’m still so wrapped up in the song, I have it as a ring-tone for my phone. I rate my Elliott Smith CDs the same way I rate my Nine Inch Nails CDs. Which is to say in a very convoluted system that renders them equally loved while secretly harboring my preference in my heart.
Either/Or is special because it is the home to “Bars” as well as “Speed Trials,” “Alameda,” “Say Yes,” & the much-loved, much-played, much-obsessed-over “Angeles.” I think the curiosity that keeps bringing me back again & again to Smith’s songs are that they are often intangible. Smith sings in a fragile, nearly whisper-y voice, as if he doesn’t really want you to hear what he’s saying.
It’s easy to go along with his music & not think much of it until some new element perks your attention. It can be alternating between singing high & low like in “Pictures Of Me,” where “Not surprised at all and really why should I be/See nothing wrong/See nothing wrong” sets out from “Everybody’s dying just to get the disease.” Or it could be the drums that come in near the end of “2:45 AM.” These are the moments that snap fingers in your face & say “Hey, were you paying attention there? What did I just say?” If you go back & listen, what you hear will break your heart.
the trumpet has obviously been drinking
‘cos he’s fucking up even the simplest lines
I’d say it’s a sight that’s quite worth seeing
it’s just that everyone’s interest is stronger than mine
and when they clean the street I’ll be the only shit that’s left behind
won’t you follow me down to the rose parade?
Despite their sparse ornamentation & the ambiguous shrug of a title, the songs on Either/Or can be strung together as a story. Not a terribly happy story & one with few (startling) colors, but Either/Or is a prime example of Smith’s ability to capture loneliness, need, anxiety, & sad, simple beauty. Few things are ever resolved; even “Say Yes” (the “happy song” my friend Colin calls it) ends on what feels like a question mark. But like my friend Anousheh’s powerhouse voice, Smith’s words & the music anchoring them are unforgettable & distinct. For me, finding his music at the end of his life is bitter & sweet.