It was a movie that first brought my attention to Elliott Smith. On watching Good Will Hunting in 1998 I heard some remarkable songs on the soundtrack that I didn’t know. It was Miss Misery playing over the end credits that particularly caught my attention. I loved it so much that I stayed to the end of the film to see who had performed the track. That was the first I’d ever heard of Elliott Smith.
I quickly bought the either/or album after hearing his songs during the movie and found a collection of the most amazing songs, both musically and lyrically. Often sung in something that’s no more than a melodic whisper, it’s at it’s best when the tracks feature an acoustic accompaniment that’s stripped to the bare bones. The words take us through snapshot of a life of disappointment and emotion from the perspective of someone who’s daring himself to have hope.
The song Between the Bars is a perfect example of what makes Elliott Smith great. “Drink up baby” Smith says as an opening and with this I can’t help but picture a scene of lovers on a bar crawl late at night, talking through the past and trying to convince themselves that the future will be different. It has a sense of how we change over time, of evolving away from “people you’ve been before that you don’t want around any more” and those we need to help us leave these past selves behind. It’s musically lovely and delivered with such sincerity it can only have been something that was personal to Smith at the time.
In Between the Bars there’s a bittersweet quality that features throughout the album. What seem to be throwaway lines hint at a much darker root to the songs, the “I saw him down in the alley/having had enough of it all” in Ballad of Big Nothing and “I traded a smoke for a food stamp dollar” in Rose Parade showing these songs represent people who are having to deal with the mud that life’s pitching at them. It’s far from a rosy picture however delightful the music.
In the same vein Say Yes, which some may see as an almost conventional love song, is barbed with the negativity of a man who’s been “damaged bad at best”. Clearing his throat at the beginning of the track as if he has something important to say, Smith builds the song around the surprise at finding a girl who is “still around the morning after”. The song has a pretty sound that almost hides the fact Smith feels nothing goes right and “situations get fucked up and turned around sooner or later”. This is someone desperate for this girl to stick with him and the listener is drawn into wishing for her to stay.
It’s hard for me to pick a favourite track off this album, but even after all these years on hearing the opening guitar line of Angeles I get goosebumps. It’s also a track that was so great live it was like time stood still when Smith played it. I was so fortunate to have been able to see him play live, as he’s another fabulous singer, songwriter and performer gone too soon. I really do miss him.
We find ourselves going back to music that means something to us and it’s certain that 1998 was a year of upheaval for me, of disappointment and the tiny glimmer of a better life. Because this was how I felt when I first heard the album, much of the negativity, unfairness and uncertainty that Elliott Smith was writing about also seemed to be about me, so I feel a strong personal connection to it. It’s an album that’s revealing, painful, beautiful, filmic, honest. You need to have it in your collection.