As is true of all great songwriters who write from a personal place, to love Elliott Smith’s music is to relate to him. That was true when he was alive, when listeners sat possessed by his effortless melancholy. It’s even truer now that he’s gone.
Like with John Lennon, Smith’s death left us all in a vacuum. Who will narrate our restless lives now? When the only option available is to learn every crack and whine on his recordings, die-hard Elliott Smith fans will find it hard to part with the original Either/Or upon first listen to Either/Or: Expanded Edition.
Overall, it’s wise to be skeptical, especially when a remaster is done posthumously. The Mastering Engineer has the unenviable job of being bound both by the risk of vandalizing something sacred and the obligation to give the listener a fresh experience.
Unfortunately, much of the remastering feels frivolous, reframing or hyper-clarifying an album that is supposed to remain in the grainy, muted past. As if Smith’s shaggy hair’s been gelled and kempt, many of the retouches add only the smoothness of modern technology and take away from the subtle dynamics of his guitar and iconic lo-fi mumble.
Certain tracks are like an overcorrected pair of glasses—clearer, but too clear. On “Alameda,”—the sad, wandering track that Beck chose to play for Smith at his funeral—the volume of the floor tom is cranked way up, transformed into a maddening metronome. As well, “Pictures of Me” pushes Smith’s vocals just a little too forward—which feels like someone separating mud into water and dirt, when the mixture was the point in the first place. The irony is thick here too, as “Pictures of Me” is about how stilted and foreign misrepresentations of self can seem.
Some retouches do improve upon the original tracks. Mastering engineer and executor of Smith’s musical estate Larry Crane finds the artful subtlety and underscores the magic of what is perhaps the most well-known song on this album, “Between the Bars.” Though cleaned up some, the overcast blur of Smith’s voice is maintained in a way that brings the audience closer to his cage. “Say Yes” and “Rose Parade” follow suit.
Where this expanded edition offers a more rounded portrait of the artist is through the bonus material. Either/Or includes live recordings of many of his most-loved songs, as well as a alternate versions and interludes. Their juxtaposition reveals Smith’s varying interpretations of his own music. The live versions include a warmer guitar sound and more of Smith’s vocal character: guttural fall-offs and the uneven vibrato at the end of phrases. The expanded album also includes a haunting unreleased track, “I Figured You Out,” one-part early Beatles, one-part Gothic moors.
But if there were only one reason to listen to Either/Or: Expanded Edition, it would be for the between song banter captured with the five added live tracks, where you can hear Smith’s raspy conversation with the audience and the swearing at his out-of-tune guitar. These moments give detail—humanity—to the memory of a man that’s been romanticized by his reclusive life and untimely death.
At one point toward the end of live version of “Pictures of Me,” Smith asks for his sister. “I couldn’t find you sweetpea…” he says as he tunes his guitar, the inflection of his voice audibly brightening when he finds her in the crowd. “There you are!” For the listener, this is catharsis. After years of feeling so close to his tender, swelling songwriting, it’s as if he’s found us in the crowd, seen us listening, and called us family.