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Listening back to the choices Elliott Smith made on ‘Either/Or,’ 20 years later

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“An unhappy man who hides deep anguish in his heart, but whose lips are so formed that when the sigh and cry pass through them, it sounds like lovely music.”

That’s how the 19th century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard answered the question “What is a poet?” in Either/Or, the landmark existentialist work that, in 1997, would provide the title for Elliott Smith’s third solo release. To commemorate the 20th anniversary of that album -- Smith’s best-selling and most critically acclaimed -- Kill Rock Stars has just reissued Either/Or in an expanded edition, with rare and live tracks as well as remasters from the original tape that enhance the warmth and depth of its hushed, finger-plucked folk pop.

The singer-songwriter, then 27, clearly understood what Kierkegaard wrote about the split between aesthetic and ethical existence. On one hand, we go through the motions, living passively or satisfying our desires through drugs or sex. On the other, there’s the promise of an existence fulfilled through moral responsibility and personal accountability, and active participation in the world. Perhaps Smith’s greatest accomplishment was to transform a life lived somewhere between these extremes into art.

Smith released Either/Or after his indie-rock band Heatmiser broke up and before his Oscar-nominated musical contributions to Good Will Hunting, and in that space between underground acclaim and mainstream visibility he found room for critical self-reflection, examining his drug and alcohol abuse, his rising solo career, his heartbreak, and his depression. Engaging with these sides of himself, Smith made the most emotionally crushing album of his short career, which ended in 2003 when he killed himself with two stab-wounds to the chest.

You don’t have to look far to see how Smith’s whispered vocals and gentle strums resonate beyond his life. On the heels of the 2014 documentary Heaven Adores You have come Say Yes! A Tribute to Elliott Smith and a similarly title podcast examining his legacy. His influence can be heard in the emotional, lyrical honesty of contemporary acts like Girlpool or Alex G, and in the frankness with which DIIV addresses drug abuse. His fans are loyal enough to troop to the landmark Figure 8 mural in L.A. to take a photo where he once merely stood.

Any attempt to eulogize a musician’s suicide risks the mistake of painting an incomplete portrait of their life or letting their death color how we hear their art, and on the Either/Or song "Pictures of Me" Smith was already singing about how “completely wrong” people were seeing him as a result of his new fame. But the tragedy of Elliott Smith illuminates the struggles of a singer-songwriter constantly at odds with himself.

“Everybody’s got their problems,” Smith once said in an NME interview. “But I don’t play music because I’m a tortured person. I play music because I enjoy it. Because… [he laughs] Because it sounds really good. I’m no sadder than anyone else I know.” In another interview, Smith stated that he was not so much a sad person but that “there has to be a certain amount of darkness in my songs for the happiness to matter.”

Heavily influenced by Smith’s fellow folk-whisperer Nick Drake, Either/Or is an album that’s always there to comfort the listener through sad moments, that makes coping with life easier, enveloping like a hug, approachable like a sympathetic friend. Intimate and bare-boned, mostly just featuring Smith and his acoustic guitar, Either/Or documents both the liberating hollowness of a drug high, when it feels like there’s nothing to lose, and the bottomless sorrow of the next morning, when you recognize you’ll never capture that feeling again.

“If you’re alone, it must be you that wants to be apart,” Smith sings on “Alameda,” about the self-imposed alienation that depression causes. And on “Ballad of Big Nothing,” lines like “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” captures the false freedom of addiction.

If music serves any purpose, it's to allow listeners to escape from their fears and entrapments into a world of sound. Smith’s intimate, interpersonal narratives offer music from and for the soul, music that both heals and gives pause for personal reflection.

The album’s closing song, “Say Yes,” is also its lightest, capturing that sobering moment when the drugs wear off and last night’s partner has left your bed. “But now I feel changed around and instead of falling down/ I'm standing up the morning after,” Smith resolves, breaking free from the apathy and turmoil that’s come before this to offer the message that to engage with life is to accept the good that can come despite the bad as a reason to keep waking up day after day.