The melodies are INTRICATE on Either/Or, especially given the framework of just one singer/songwriter and his acoustic guitar and voice, soundtracking the entire album. Right there in the seemingly unassuming opener “Speed Trials,” for instance, we have this incredibly subtle, almost untraceable key change immersed in the chorus at an apparently random type (whereas Led Zeppelin may have been more predisposed to setting up a key change pylon marker right at the BEGINNING of the chorus, subtle as it may have been).
And then take a song like “Between the Bars,” which is the subject of this post’s direct predecessor on Elliott Smith’s classic album. It’s just got this incredibly cool, cinematic quality, like you could plop it right in the middle of Garden State, or better yet Boys Don’t Cry, and it wouldn’t disrupt the flow or the chemistry of the film at all. The atmosphere created is undeniably URBAN, bohemian, even, appropriate since Smith shared a town of residence with the band that wrote “Bohemian Like You,” even roughly contemporaneous with Either/Or, at that. The guitar intro, too, in “Between the Bars,” is shifty and Dionysian, the type of thing that would make proud any of various musicians from John Lennon to Donald Fagan.
To be sure, I’ve always ABIDED “Pictures of Me” within a general worship of this Elliott Smith LP as well as Figure 8 which brought us the magnanimous, piano-borne “In the Lost and Found” (which plays as an incredibly sad and worthy swan song, to this date). Honestly I was grotesquely late getting into Smith’s discography but even in about 2010 when I finally found Either/Or at the library, took it home and ripped it, indie rock seemed pretty invincible, with Deerhunter, The National and No Age all putting out works that were authoritative in their own rights and any detractors of the style akin to cave dwellers lacking opposable thumbs. So it seemed, anyway, certainly.
Well as we know we sidled into a full fumigation of indie and its surrounding zeitgeist within the rest of that decade, the one directly prior to this one. Men who would emerge in pop music became more invariably alpha male, their subject matter more subsumed in the relationship-oriented, and people developed the uncanny ability to ignore the fact that a female were completely naked, in assessing the amount of artistic merit she is to garner from her audience.
Such a thing hardly leaves room for “Pictures of Me,” and really, it might even be good riddance, the more I think about it. It was from the start a foolish song to include on Either/Or, lacking as it does the gentle subtlety of “Between the Bars” as well as the lyrical humor prevalent in what’s in my opinion the album’s centerpiece, “Rose Parade.”
More than anything, though, it’s one big “rock star fit,” as Kurt Cobain liked to tab such things (he himself hardly being completely evasive of said trap both in lyrics and in everyday life), and it smacks of a certain indie elitism which in the end owns to a permutation into something that exactly indie were supposed to avoid: egoism and the childishness of the successful and pampered. Smith is, essentially, complaining about having his picture taken, which I suppose is understandable and justified to an extent seeing as it represents an opposition to the papa razzi (which I’m pretty sure everybody hates), but in the process makes the churlish claim that the pictures of “Completely wrong / Totally wrong”.
I obviously get that he’s joking, that he’s trying to imbue some universal truth that candid pictures don’t truly tell the tale of somebody’s disposition. But, for one thing, I think he’s wrong about this very thing. There’s a great quote in Aldous Huxley’s excellent, verbose novel Point Counter Point, which I’m going to just slightly paraphrase for practicality purposes, and which reads “Everything that happens in life is intrinsically like the person to whom it happens.” And so even though Smith’s lyrics are tongue-in-cheek, the prominent placement of this song of track five on his defining album bespeaks a sort of sour, unwieldy confidence on his part in his own gregarious sense of humor, when in such a position he’d have been better off pursuing the dark, faux-psychedelic artistic hallways of his mind, which certainly seem to peel off like onion skins of this project, much elsewhere throughout. Given that he threw this song smack in the middle of an important album, anyway, and not on some b-sides collection where it belongs (and maybe even where it would actually WORK, in a holistic sense, as it were), we as listeners have every right to treat it as if he’s being serious, if only for the implacable arduousness of factoring in a mechanical sense of humor in such an emotional “heavy load” and ingenuous musical mind as Smith is on the majority of this LP.