Review: Elliot Smith’s Either/Or at 20 is a poignant love letter to music

The 20th anniversary reissue of classic album Either/Or reminds us of the reluctant rock star's emotional depth and melodic power.

The 20th anniversary reissue of Either/Or by Elliott Smith is out now on Universal Music Group
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The least comfortable of rock stars, Elliott Smith never thrived in the spotlight, but his gift for tender and melodic alternative rock repeatedly pushed him there. For many, their introduction to Smith and his predicament came at the 1998 Academy Awards. His song Miss Misery had been featured in the film Good Will Hunting, and now here he was, nominated for Best Original Song: taking a bow with Celine Dion, with unwashed hair, performing in a white suit.

Miss Misery (contemporary with, if not featured on, the current release) was a fine example of Smith's art. Self-evidently melancholic, folky, it isolated a desolate emotional state and gave it a female name.

The musicians of five years previously – like say, Nirvana – had vocalised their issues of low self-esteem in a cathartic grunge rock. Smith’s previous band Heatmiser had flirted with this mode but his solo material was more melodically searching and candid, the gaze of his music turned inwards, his worst criticisms reserved for himself.

Heatmiser, he felt, had been burned by the corporate rock business, and clearly Smith retained his suspicions, his first two solo albums being home-recorded, low profile affairs. Either/Or, which was initially released on the indie label Kill Rock Stars, was comparatively big-budget, being in part studio-recorded, and with a producer other than himself.

This 20th anniversary reissue adds some punch to the original sound and presents some complimentary, if not essential, extras (a few live tracks), but it’s the 31-minute original album which still commands attention.

At the time it was made, Smith could feel the heat of music business interest rising around him. There were lines round the block when he played New York's CMJ Music Marathon in 1996. He found this kind of development absurd and, in an oblique way, inspiring. It's fair to say that the album finds Smith on his guard about it all. On Angeles he references a slick, possibly music biz, professional "trailing a new kill". Even the sweet-sounding, previously unreleased I Figured You Out mentions dollar signs.

The idea of money as a corrupting influence, leading the musician off course, is seeded eloquently throughout the album. Early on, in Ballad Of Big Nothing, Smith presents the image of someone throwing sweets out into the crowd, sweets which by the time of Rose Parade have become "shaped like money".

Rose Parade is one of the album's best songs and finds the singer observing a shambolic civic event where the band is hobbled by its self-medicating trumpet player. The supposedly dignified event descends into absurd chaos.

This, we’re not left in much doubt, is precisely how Smith saw the music business. “A ridiculous marching band started playing,” he sings. “And got me singing along with some half-hearted victory song…”

Vulnerable and suspicious, Smith was on the lookout for the undercover cop in everyone, and had exactingly high standards for himself. This could yield extraordinary results – this album isn’t only self-composed, it’s also entirely self-played, Smith arranging sympathetically his intricate fingerstyle guitar with drums and the occasional deadly guitar solo.

It also meant he was his own sternest critic, viewing with disdain the shuffling character of Alameda, unable to connect emotionally ("You broke your own heart/You can't finish what you start…"). Between the Bars mercilessly unpicks dreams and ambitions as self-delusion – and how the reality of mediocrity will present itself, like an alarm call, with the morning's sobriety. The ironically jaunty Pictures Of Me develops the idea more explicitly, with the singer finding himself in the spotlight but it being "completely wrong". Cupid's Trick is the album's immediately-killer rock song, haunting and mean, but also the one whose lyrics remain enigmatically unprinted on the sleeve.

It should all be an agonising listen, and when Smith died in 2003 (an apparent suicide), his catalogue offered up self-lacerating couplets and tales of self-medication. Those alone miss the point and underplay the magnificent delicacy and power of this music.

Smith wrote about depression and numbness, and falling short artistically, but his music was no documentary. His real subject was romantic: how to do justice to music, to love and to passing time.

Opening the envelope in 1998, Madonna expressed no surprise that the award for Best Original Song had been awarded to the writers of Celine Dion's My Heart Will Go On, theme from the movie Titanic. "What a shocker," she said, utterly deadpan.

You suspect the outcome won't have surprised Elliott Smith much, either. In spite of everything, Either/Or, remains a resounding victory for someone who didn't much believe in them.

John Robinson is associate editor of Uncut and the Guardian Guide’s rock critic. He lives in London.