Reflecting on Elliott Smith’s ‘Either/Or’ through its loving, extensive reissue

Elliott Smith at the 1998 Academy Awards.
(Susan Sterner / Associated Press)

The Elliott Smith wall is still — sort of — standing on Sunset Boulevard in Silver Lake. The red, white and blue swirl outside the old Solutions speaker repair shop served as a backdrop for Smith’s 2000 album “Figure 8” and was, for years, a place for fans to leave little hand-drawn memorial messages to the late singer-songwriter.

Now a big square of it has been removed to make room for a window looking onto a new wine spot called Bar Angeles. The name is nominally a tribute to Smith’s song “Angeles,” from his beloved 1997 album “Either/Or.” Say what you will about that as a metaphor for how L.A. has changed in the 14 years since Smith’s death (you can still find the old segment of wall inside the bar, and a more garish Smith portrait popped up on a mural down the street).

But at least it’s a reminder to go back and listen to “Either/Or,” probably Smith’s best album and the latest to get a loving, extensive reissue and remaster.

The album was Smith’s entry into mainstream pop, as Gus Van Sant’s Oscar-winning “Good Will Hunting” used several singles from it in the film’s soundtrack. Smith famously performed the “Hunting” soundtrack tune “Miss Misery” at the 1998 Oscars (Celine Dion beat him for best original song).


But “Either/Or” was the turning point in a career that took him from a cult indie artist to a profoundly ambitious but deeply troubled major-label songwriter whose death still haunts the corners of L.A..

Listening to the gently remastered “Either/Or” today (a project helmed by longtime Smith collaborator Larry Crane), is a reminder of how far indie-minded production tastes have shifted, but also how striking Smith’s musicianship remains.

From the opening strums of “Speed Trials” through career highlights such as “Between the Bars” and “Say Yes,” there’s quiet instrumental virtuosity in every phrase that stands in almost total contrast to the compressed, loop-driven productions that are now the default of almost all pop and rock music.

A simple song like “Angeles” gives up more secrets with every listen, from the brilliant fingerpicking to the swelling unease of the chromatic walk-up in the bridge. Smith’s voice came into its own on this album as a one-of-kind whisper and un-effected harmonies could be lacerating in their delicacy. Maybe younger ears tired of pop’s compression wars will rediscover those virtues.

Lyrically, Smith was at his best, shifting out of the hung over isolation of his early records and cresting just before the Beatles-style surrealism of his last LPs. There’s no romantic relationship alive that won’t find some resonance in the mix of tender protection and creepy domineering that laces “Between the Bars,” and his eloquence with images was so profound that songs like “Alameda” and “Rose Parade” seem local and personal to anyone who hears them (many fans thought for years that they were about L.A.)

Rather than simply add to the pile-on of posthumous Smith bootlegs and unreleased material, the extras on the new “Either/Or” seek to humanize him. Some live sketches and drafts showcase his rigorous editing (like an early version of “Bottle Up and Explode,” from his follow-up “XO”).

And there’s one true new gem, “I Figured You Out,” that Smith never released because, as he put it, he thought it “sounded too much like the… Eagles.” It kind of does, but that just shows the breadth and refinement of his skills.

If you hang out in the upstairs lounge of the Satellite or linger over a Jameson at the Roost, you’ll still catch whispers of Smith stories from the early 2000s. Most of them will be heartbreaking – a longtime addict, he was profoundly unwell at the end of his life.


But you’ll also hear some hilarious anecdotes and, just as often, stories of his kindness and humility. Wall or no wall, fans rediscovering records such as “Either/Or” will be the lasting tribute to his talents.

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