AOM Logo November 1998


Elliot Smith: XO

Dreamworks (Universal Music)

Playing Time: 44:46


D. Malcolm Fairbrother

Cover Image

The secret that is Elliot Smith is out. The former Heatmiser front man has emerged from the Portland, Oregon music scene's penumbral gloom and now stands confidently in the light, awaiting public awareness. For many listeners, their introduction to Smith's finely crafted, introspectively intense tunes occurred last March while watching the Academy Awards when a somewhat gaunt figure, his white suit and his grunge-inspired unkempt hair colliding magnificently, sat hunched over a piano as he played his self-penned Academy-Award-nominated Miss Misery from Good Will Hunting, and later was seen in the ensemble holding hands with Celine Dion with uncharacteristic camaraderie.

Elliott Smith's previous solo releases, some independent singles, and the three CDs, Roman Candle (Cavity Search Records), Elliott Smith, and Either/Or (Kill Rock Stars Music), might well have been subtitled Kevorkian's Waiting Room, or Terminal Angst as a stark subject matter that ran the gamut from failed relationships to drugged and alchohol-saturated losers was well in evidence; yet Smith¹s craftsmanship seeped through the doom and gloom to such an extent that he has been called America¹s greatest unknown songwriter. XO just may necessitate a change in that moniker. On this, his most recent opus, he has not strayed all that far from those earlier themes; what has changed are his stylistic sensibilities as he has used the studio with skill and ingenuity to produce a sonic delight that borders on being a master work.

It would be unfairly simplistic to label XO's overall sound as psychedelic without addressing that genre's strengths and weaknesses: at its best, Psychedelia prompted a flowering of imagery and expanded the range of recording techniques available to the artist and the producer; at its worst, it bombarded the listener with a sound crowded by ineffective or pompous effects and inane lyrics. Elliott Smith and his production team (himself, Tom Rothrock and Rob Schnapf...kudos to them!) pay homage to the aural styles of the late 60s and early 70s without falling into the trap of mimicking them. Lyrically, XO remains true to the end-of-the-century-and-maybe-the-end-of-me sensibilities that dominate punk-grunge inspired artists. The overall effect is startling. In contrast to Smith's formerly forlorn and stark sound, this work contains an eclectic variety of instruments including vibes, horns and strings. It is as if an artist who has heretofore produced a series of charcoal line drawings has suddenly discovered a few colours.

Sweet Adeline opens the CD with a moderately playful guitar riff soon joined by a break-up lyric that explodes into a chorus of Elliott Smiths that harmonize the title with Beatlesque intensity. An organ adds to the melancholic atmosphere as the sounds fade like the relationship it mourns. Smith, it is fair to say, combines the cynicism of Lennon with the melodious diversity of McCartney in many of the songs; but there are many other influences afoot throughout XO, a hint of Beach Boys here, a touch of rock-operatic Pete Townsend there. Tomorrow Tomorrow with its smooth tempo changes, internal rhymes, and a chorus that, again, is a multi-tracked Elliott Smith approaching a crescendo that, despite its euphonic delivery, depicts the mental unraveling of the narrator. But, it is on the third song, Waltz #2 (XO), that the tunesmith¹s craft and studio technology are beautifully interwoven to reach a pinnacle of superlative merit. Drums introduce the familiar 3/4 time signature, soon augmented by a harmonious union of guitar and chords. A wistful lyric weaves and waltzes atop the immensely memorable tune. A swirl of strings lifts a refrain of almost unbearable melancholy to its impactful conclusion: "I¹m never gonna know you now, but I¹m gonna love you anyhow." It is, to this reviewer, the most memorable moment of the CD.

The musical tone becomes somewhat lighter on Baby Britain, a song very much in the style of Paul McCartney¹s nostalgic dance-hall numbers, though somewhat more cynical in subject matter. It is a buoyantly paced tune; its piano driven melody conflicts with a wry lyric to produce a pleasant incongruity of style and substance. The thematically dense Pitseleh grows slowly from a throw-away number to a satisfying listen after several repetitions. On a CD that frequently challenges the listener with thought-provoking lyrics, Independence Day simultaneously provokes and excites in the same vein as Paul Simon , commencing with a plucked guitar riff, a shuffling drum, and a tale that is about as optimistic as Elliott Smith is wont to be, about a "future butterfly" on the brink of a metamorphosis: "Every body knows / You only live a day, / But it's brilliant anyway." The music metamorphose as well, approaches a jaunty pace before fading delicately.

From the perkiness of Bled White, through the understated elegance of Lennon-like Waltz # 1, and the grinding punk-grunge power of Amity, to Oh Well, Okay's undisguised homage to the Beach Boys, the artist demonstrates his fearless willingness to blend his unusual themes with imaginative interpretations of the styles of many diverse musicians. Just when it seems as if Mr. Smith has paraded the most entertaining of his ideas past appreciative ears, he astounds the listener once more with the melodic Bottle Up And Explode, which actually does, into a pure piece of powerful pop music. Strings well up, then are brushed aside by an insistent guitar solo that propels the song briskly along. The angry delivery of A Question Mark is followed by the brooding cynicism of the penultimate number, Everybody Knows, Everybody Cares. The ironic positioning of the last track, I Didn't Understand is heightened cleverly by a choral delivery of an introspective lyric without the hindrance of instrumentation, a fitting conclusion to this softly pessimistic, wonderfully rendered collection of gems.

The ambiguity of the X and the O in the title of this work presents an interesting dichotomy of interpretations: perhaps Mr. Smith envisions the X as something beautiful that has been invalidated or canceled, something that was, but is no longer, while the nothingness that surrounds us and our fragility becomes embodied in the O. This reviewer chooses to see the symbols in a somewhat more positive light: the X is a kiss thrown in his direction by appreciative listeners, the O, an infinite hug for an impressive craft well expressed.

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