XO remains a heart-breaking listen several years after its release.
Mike Diver 2010-07-20
Elliott Smith’s major label debut arrived on the back of no little acclaim courtesy of Gus Van Sant’s film Good Will Hunting, to which the Nebraska-born singer-songwriter contributed a selection of tracks. One of those songs, Miss Misery, he performed at the 70th Academy Awards ceremony in March 1998. Evidently nervous in the spotlight, Smith nevertheless took the step to a larger stable for XO, which emerged just five months after his Oscars turn.
The worst could have been expected, a move into commercial waters and the alienation of a solid, if then small, fanbase. But admirers of Smith’s Kill Rock Stars-released fare rested easy after a single listen to this Tom Rothrock and Rob Schnapf co-produced collection, his fourth studio set overall – the budget might have gone up, but Smith’s masterful way with an understated melody and melancholic lyric remained firmly intact. XO is, perhaps, the greatest long-player Smith released; if not, it’s certainly the equal of the preceding Either/Or. Repeat listens don’t dull it in the slightest, every barbed one-liner and exhalation of despair perfectly preserved. The arrangements aren’t busy, percussion neatly present without overwhelming the acoustic elements; when the pace picks up, as on Amity, Smith’s punk roots are pleasantly revealed without compromising this album’s expert maintenance of atmosphere.
At the core of XO’s lyrical content there is clear emotional unrest – be it manifesting itself within our protagonist, or viewed through his eyes in another. Waltz #2’s line of “I’m never gonna know you now, but I’m gonna love you anyhow” is an absolute heart-breaker, a sorrowful admission of misplaced affection. Situations get the better of Smith, but resolution rarely presents itself. Baby Britain is an attack on an individual afflicted by addiction, but it seems as if Smith is going along for the same ride; Bottle Up and Explode speaks of escape – “I can make it outside… I’ll make it through” – yet its tone is some way short of triumphant. Given Smith’s eventual suicide it’s natural to look for signs in his lyric-writing, and XO’s release came shortly after a slip into depression and a failed attempt to kill himself by running off a cliff. But this isn’t an album of impending release – it’s the sound of being enclosed, every turn just another step in a circle taken over, and over, and over.
It’s perhaps because Smith couldn’t properly express his innermost issues through consistently brilliant music that the world lost such a talent in October 2003. His last complete studio release, 2000’s Figure 8 (its title an allusion to the infinite pursuit of something unattainable), offered a distracting detachment from the reality of previous, grittier work; but it was followed by heavy drug addiction and aborted studio sessions, as well as the breakdown of numerous long-term friendships. What went through his head when finally enough was enough, nobody will ever know. What the listener’s heart does throughout XO is grow heavier and heavier, and come closer I Didn’t Understand – “I always feel like s***, I don’t know why” – it overflows with genuine sadness for a man who could only find peace through the most extreme means.