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You Wont But You Might: On Elliott Smith’s Suspended, Hopeful 'Either/Or'

A remastered and expanded edition of Smith's third solo album out today; it's a good time to remember the boundless potential that came before the tragedy.

by Alex Robert Ross
Mar 10 2017, 7:21pm

Elliott Smith had been playing "King's Crossing" sporadically at his shows for four years before he recorded it in late 2003. But it was only in his last few months, in a streak of sets that ran from transcendent to painful depending on the his chemical imbalances, that his half-sister, Ashley Welch, and his girlfriend, Jennifer Chiba, would add their responses in-time. At the end of Smith's second chorus, after he sang the crippling line "Just give me one good reason not to do it," they would scream back: "Because we love you!"

You can find videos and bootlegs of those late performances now, Smith singing the line before voices come in from off-camera, piercing the white noise. The one that I keep coming back to is from the Henry Fonda Theatre, January 31, 2003. He opened his set that night with "King's Crossing," stuttering and slurring through the track, losing his phrasing while his right hand struggled to stay steady, a warped cog throwing off an intricate machine.

And then there's the scream: "Because we love you!"

"King's Crossing" turned out to be the last song that Smith recorded, on October 12 2003. In his essential piece on Smith's last days, Liam Gowing writes about that session at New Monkey studios. He writes that Smith recorded the vocals and then invited Chiba in to record her line: "Because I love you." He proposed to her there and then. Nine days later, off-balance after radically altering back his narcotics intake, diet, and prescription meds, grappling with what seemed to be a resurfacing trauma from childhood, Smith killed himself at his home in Los Angeles.

"King's Crossing" appeared on his posthumous From a Basement on the Hill as a terrifying centerpiece, a howl of voices that gives way to a funereal waltz before a cast of marionettes and skinny Santas show up to hurl viciousness at the protagonist. By the time it reaches the end of that frightening second chorus, Chiba's voice is buried so deep in the mix that you have to listen through headphones and turn it all the way up to discern her line. Unless you're really listening for it, all you'll hear is Smith responding to himself: "So, do it."

This all became a part of Smith's mythos. Most of his obituaries included that resigned cry for help, asking for a reason to stay, finding nothing. A few week's after Smith died, Ted Leo spoke with Jon Dolan for a piece at SPIN. "People have been saying 'Yeah man, it sucks, but I guess we all saw it coming.'" Elliott Smith, who asked rhetorically for a reason not to do it, but had being thinking about doing it, finally did it. But Leo didn't buy that line. "How is it ever inevitable that someone's going to stab himself in the fucking heart?," he asked.

Today, Kill Rock Stars released a remastered and gently expanded edition of Smith's third solo album, Either/Or. The reissue itself isn't revelatory. It features a few decent live cuts and a handful of alternate takes from those sessions in 199—of those, only Smith's "I Figured You Out," written in the throes of a Big Star fixation before being handed over to Mary Lou Lord, is essential. 2007's New Moon, released in lieu of an Either/Or reissue, was a more intriguing trove of ephemera; the Heaven Adores You soundtrack, with its almost creepy intimacy, was more weighty as a biography; Alternative Versions from Either/Or, from 2012, contained a startlingly spare "Angeles" and a haunting "Alameda."

And yet, 20 years after the album quietly marked Smith's unlikely break into the mainstream—it was this record that prompted Gus Van Sant to bring Smith in for Good Will Hunting—the reissue feels like essential as a reminder of Smith's suspended hope. Beneath all the melancholy, he was was doing battle with his past and looking to his future. Either/Or wasn't just a milestone on Smith's inevitable march towards an early demise. As a musician and a human, he was coming to terms with his own potential. It was the closest that Smith got in his music to approaching Chiba's drowned-out line on "King's Crossing."

The darkness comes first. This is an album that opens with the pained whisper of "Speed Trials," essentially a tribute to futility, a track about running while standing still. "The socket's not a shock enough," he sings, trying to shake off the inertia. All he can muster is a "brief smile," nothing lasting. On "No Name #5," that's back again as "a sweet, sweet smile that's fading fast." It's not just that happiness is fleeting on Either/Or; Smith seems to be thinking about the comedown before the muscles on his face have twitched. "Ballad of Big Nothing" takes all this and writes it out on a parade float: "You can do what you want to whenever you want to / You can do what you want to there's no one to stop you." You'd be forgiven for wondering why you'd do anything at all.

All of this—the indecision, the uncaring, the overpowering sense of comic irony—is borrowed, like the album's title, from Søren Kierkegaard. When it's pushed up against Smith's album, the Danish philosopher's Either/Or can be boiled down to that damned-if-you-do worldview. "Hang yourself, you will regret it; do not hang yourself, and you will regret that too; hang yourself or don't hang yourself, you'll regret it either way; whether you hang yourself or do not hang yourself, you will regret both," Kierkegaard wrote in that bizarre essay. In Smith's words, "it doesn't mean a thing." Regret, it seems, is an inevitable by-product of every action and every decision in Smith's Either/Or.

This would all make him an aesthete, a romantic, an acne-scarred Romeo in a Baz Luhrmann remake. The ruthless self-laceration of "Alameda" that sandwiches "Speed Trials" and "...Big Nothing"—nobody broke his heart, he broke it himself—just drives it home. But Either/Or doesn't succumb to that. "Between the Bars" is a love song written backwards, an abusive relationship with alcohol that he sticks with for a purpose.

Drink up, baby, stay up all night
With the things you could do, you won't but you might
The potential you'll be, that you'll never see
The promises you'll only make

The smile might be fading fast, but the potential could be eternal. "Pleasure disappoints, possibility never," Kierkegaard wrote. "Between the Bars" is still all melancholy on the surface—the bottle talks to him about the "people you've been before, that you don't want around anymore." But that's not drinking to forget, that's drinking for a personal revolution, culling the residual personas that he can no longer stand. At the very least, the alcohol will "keep them still."

More than almost any other track on Either/Or, "Between the Bars" has Smith caught in a specific, stretched-out moment in time. He tries to break his past and hold it to his "will" while stumbling into possibility. "The potential you'll be, that you'll never see" could be ripped straight from Kierkegaard's aesthete in the first half of his essay, Smith turning away from the fading smile and pinning his hopes on some undefined future. On Either/Or's title track, left off of the final album but released on New Moon 10 years later, he sings the clearest indication of this suspension in time. Through a Hammond organ and a bright melody, he lays it out:

Sometimes I ricochet from the past
And at times a future I've already had before
Champion or chore, either/or

Smith's future turned out to be tragic and it didn't take long. "King's Crossing" was played live for the first time in 1999, just a couple years after Either/Or came out and just a few months after his performance at the Oscars blew him up into something he'd never imagined. The potential turned to a terrifying finality there, and there's a sense in which he carried that through his next three albums, all the way to his final recording session. But inside Either/Or, he's Harry Dean Stanton's Travis in Paris, Texas, Smith's favorite movie. Like Travis, he's struggled to reconcile his past and dismiss the people he's been before; he's tried to steady it all with alcohol; and somehow, he's ended up talking into a one-way mirror, with the listener on the other side, laying himself out.

And what we get at the end of Either/Or is Smith's loveliest, warmest song. "Say Yes" is still wracked with self-doubt and all the same anguish, but the contradiction is too forceful. No, he's not in love with a girl, he's "in love with the world through the eyes of a girl" because the aesthete doesn't just die like that. But the smile lingers; she's "still around the morning after." He's Travis driving away from the hotel with Ry Cooder playing in the background, unsure of what's next, but caught up in the possibility of that uncertainty. He's Kierkegaard's first character in Either/Or talking about the virtues of potential.

Like the ricochet from the past that stays buried in the mix of "King's Crossing," just for a moment, nothing is final.

Lead photo credit: Andy Willsher / Getty Images.

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