Revisited is a series in which writers look back on a work of art they first encountered long ago. Here, Emma Straub revisits Elliott Smith’s album Either/Or.
For a little while, starting around 1998, Elliott Smith and I were the best of friends. I was a freshman at Oberlin, making myself depressing mixtapes to match my mood, and there was nothing that matched my mood better than Either/Or. I didn’t know anything about lo-fi music—everything else I’d ever truly loved was glossy and studio perfect: Madonna’s Immaculate Collection and Mary J. Blige’s What’s the 411—but all of a sudden, my sadness was so great that I only could have loved Either/Or more if it had literally been covered with dirt. It was street-level misery, whispered and simple.
Like all best friends, Elliott and I had things in common: drinking problems, uneven love lives. Elliott’s demons had sharper teeth than mine, but I felt like I could see my own sadness reflected in his. Even the record cover—Elliott smoking, a dirty mirror behind his head, Ferdinand tattoo on his arm—looks the way I felt then, a little bit out of focus and grimy.
Listening now, I hear Ohio, brown and gray most months of the year. I hear my beautiful alcoholic roommate having angry, drunk sex with her boyfriend on the other side of the wall that divided our room. I hear the stoplights swinging in the wind. I hear the beer bottles in the garbage can the day after a party. I hear Elliott’s voice singing to me through my headphones as I walk across campus to the library, to class, to a bench where I sit and smoke with anyone who happens along, rarely sure if we are actually friends or not.
Everyone I went to college with had a wonderful time. Sometimes I forget this, the giddy gleefulness of my classmates, but Facebook is good at reminding me. All around me, people were making friends they’d keep for life, meeting their life partners. I’m not sure what they knew that I didn’t—maybe that college was supposed to be better than high school or that it was less fun to be cripplingly self-conscious than not.
Some of my friends mocked me for being so devoted to Elliott and to the other mopes I listened to, like Jeff Buckley, another beauty, already dead. I had a radio show at two in the morning and I was supposed to play jazz, but instead I played Elliott and Jeff and Chet Baker, an even sadder, prettier addict with a trumpet, the only one of my sad boys who actually qualified as jazz. At the time, I argued with anyone who would listen about the richness of Either/Or and all the other records I listened to obsessively, and while it still sounds aching and lovely to me, I do now hear the levelness of it, unrelenting and monochromatic. It makes me wonder how Elliott Smith felt about his contemporaries, the Backstreet Boys and NSYNC, all lip gloss and dance moves. Probably not good. Ohio suited him, at least the Ohio I saw—the ground and the sky were often the same color. The world was bleak. As soon as it was spring, school was out and I was gone.
There were others: Ron Sexsmith, Badly Drawn Boy. I had no patience for full bands. I went to see Elliott play a number of times, including twice in a row at the Bowery Ballroom, shortly before he killed himself. Each night, at the end of the show, Elliott asked if anyone had requests, and I shouted out the names of songs I wanted to hear (“Say Yes” and “St. Ides Heaven”). Both times, he played them. Once I saw Elliott open for Beck, and the contrast was jarring—Elliott’s quiet guitar versus Beck’s white-suited showboating—but at those two Bowery shows, he was perfect. The room fit him—him and me and all the other people who loved him—and when he sang, no one breathed. No one moved. We were all quiet enough to hear every word, to hear him, and to be happy.
Emma Straub’s most recent novel is Modern Lovers.