Tuesday, December 19, 2006

"I'm damaged bad at best"

#12 either/or, Elliott Smith, Kill Rock Stars, 1997

Once again, a Bowman mixtape led me to the promised land. On Side B of the gem I've already mentioned that featured Cat Power's "Metal Heart" was an acoustic ballad with an edge: "So now you see your first mistake was thinking that you could relate." The quiet, smoke-filled voice oozed apathetic insight, yet hinted at an ocean-sized sensitivity. The song was "Alameda" from 1997's either/or but it took me until 1998 to pick up the record. By that time, Smith's first Dreamworks release, XO, was out as well, and I picked both of them up at the only record store in the Johnson City mall over the summer. While XO is really really good (might we see it end up on some other list?!?), its production level is much grander than the subtler, four-track feel of either/or. From the moment the click of the record button starts "Speed Trials" until the muted optimism of "Say Yes" subsides, Smith recounts episode after episode of drunken failure and stilted love with misanthropic genius. "Ballad of Big Nothing" brings thick bass and drums to taunt the listener: "Do what you want to whenever you want to, there's no one to stop you." Perhaps prophetically, Smith decries his future, post-suicide idolization on "Pictures of Me": "So tired of all these pictures of me/Oh everybodys dying just to get the disease." The forlorn love of "Between the Bars" and the nihilistic edge of "No. Name #5" and "Punch and Judy" challenge the American success story and offer a different, heart-wrenching vision. Such a vision is complete in the masterpiece "Rose Parade," which follows the protagonist as he stumbles through the crowded streets of Pasadena, mocking the band players, trading smokes for food stamps, and wryly observing "when they clean the streets I'll be the only shit that's left behind." Opener "Speed Trials" gets stuck in your head and doesn't leave for days: "it's just a brief smile crossing your face/running speed trials standing in place." Both "Alameda" and "Angeles" received their much deserved fame when Gus Van Sandt utilized Smith's tortured songs for Good Will Hunting, helping that film gain indie cred and catapulting Smith into the limelight as he got a Grammy nod for "Miss Misery." In 2003, I found out right before leaving work that Smith had committed suicide. That day I went home and played this record for several hours, listening in shock and wishing that someone could have broken through to him. either/or offers a glimpse into his sadness and depression through a raw beauty that both challenges and soothes, and I'm thankful that, despite the fact that he is gone, his records are still very much alive.

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