OTR, Take 27: Elliott Smith - Either/Or

Here's a link to today's album if you'd like to listen along.

The venom surfaces, no matter how under wraps you try to keep it.

One side effect of assuming something of a public-facing life – even one as limited as mine, with a group of people on LinkedIn who interact with my ramblings and the 103 people who receive this newsletter – is that you inevitably show up to do the work in a bad mood. A really shitty mood. One of those moods where your self-control is tested when living up to Vonnegut's one rule of life: "Goddamit, you've got to be kind."

Sometimes you want to break shit.

I am, at the moment, in one of these moods, and I considered skipping OTR this week, for the second week in a row. I've been pretty ill and I could invoke any number of excuses. And besides, I'm stupidly grateful that you folks read OTR, but I don't owe it to you. (I might owe it to myself, but that's a different story.)

And yet, here it is in your inbox. Why? Maybe I'm in such a perverse mood that I refuse to let Resistance win. Maybe I know that working through this edition of OTR will force me into the version of myself that I want to be by the time I hit Send.

Nobody broke your heart
you broke your own cause you can't finish what you start

You've certainly heard the exhortation to fake it till you make it at some point in your life. That advice terrifies me; not because it doesn't work, but because it does. The danger is that we don't often think about what it is we're pretending to be and by the time we become it, it's too late.

This album changed my life.
Got bitten fingernails and a head full of the past

Two albums released in 1997 changed the course of my musical journey. The first, Oasis's Be Here Now was a massive coked-out disappointment. From 1994, when Definitely Maybe was released, through the release of Be Here Now, I was a massive Oasis stan. I still think Definitely Maybe is one of the best debut rock albums ever made. Be Here Now, though, was a come-back-to-earth moment. There are some great songs on the record, but the whole thing is bloated and the result of a band too big to be edited.

I was in Ireland when "D'You Know What I Mean?" was released as a single and I remember the buzz. (Oasis is a Mancunian band, but full of second-generation Irish immigrants.) It's a perfect example of everything that's great and terrible about the album. It's has a sneer and cockiness that only a band like Oasis could pull off (hell, it lifts the chords from "Wonderwall" without blinking) and has genuine energy...but it's over seven minutes long and could easily have been a great four-minute track.

An aside before moving on: the AI IP wars are coming. I ran across this last week and I'm still stunned by how good it is. The modeling of Liam's voice is perfect and the songs are pretty good. There are pieces that don't match Noel's writing style (things that most people wouldn't ever notice, but if, like me, you know how to play basically every Oasis song written from 1993 through 1997, you pick up on...) but I'll let you judge for yourself:

The second album that changed the course of my musical journey in 1997 was Elliott Smith's Either/Or. This probably reveals a little too much about the nerd kid that I was (am), but I had read Kiergegaard's Either/Or around New Year 1997 – my sophomore year of high school. A friend of mine introduced me to what I mistakenly thought was Smith's first band, Heatmiser, in February 1997. I really liked Mic City Sons and, like any nerd 15-year-old at the time, hit up the message boards and listservs.

It was through this internet sleuthing that I discovered that Elliott Smith had released Either/Or on February 25, 1997. Finding a copy proved more difficult than learning of its existence, for it predated Smith's breakthrough – his song "Miss Misery" was featured on the Good Will Hunting soundtrack, leading to one of the most incongruous Oscars performances ever (just look at him at the end, with statuesque women on either side, towering over him):

But track it down, I did. And it allowed me to see music in a new way.

Back then, the first thing I did when I fell in love with a new band was learn how to play their songs. I had to know the songs down to their bones. When you listen to Either/Or, you hear a sparseness, a simplicity to the music. Quite often, it's just an acoustic guitar and Smith's otherworldly vocals (he would manually create his own reverb and echo effects) and it would be easy to think the music was simple too.

You'd be wrong.

There's nothing simple about the chording or the mix of fingerpicking and strumming that he did. Seriously: I have never run across another guitarist who plays like he does – just as nobody sounds like Mark Knopfler or how Stevie Ray Vaughn plays lead and rhythm at the same time.

It took me ages to figure out what the hell he was doing.

When they clean the street, I'll be the only shit that's left behind

People tend to have only two reactions to Elliott Smith: they get him or they don't. Those that do, watch out: there's a rabbit hole ripe for the jumping.

I've found it more difficult to write about Elliott than I thought I would. So much of that arises from the way he died, how drugs and alcohol derailed such a beautiful artist. The older I get – especially now, after brushing death a few times myself – the more real the troubles these larger-than-life figures suffered become.

Especially because they're not larger than life: every last one of us is just a person.

Be careful who you pretend to be because when you become that person, it might well be unbearable.

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