Twenty years on, XO remains Elliott Smith’s magnificent requiem
It’s a tragedy of course anytime an individual is taken too soon. In the case of Elliott Smith, that sense of sadness is magnified by the fact that he had easily ascended to a peak and, at the time of his death, was in the crux of a creative period that spanned the release of his landmark Either/Or album through to his final work From a Basement on a Hill, the album he was working on at the time of his demise. His death still remains a mystery; fatally injured by a pair of knife wounds to his chest, it’s still not known if the stabbing was self-inflicted or caused by an intruder. Regardless, it further adds to the mystery and mystique that surrounded Smith when his life came to its abrupt end.
Like Jeff Buckley, a kindred spirit who also left this world prematurely, Smith was a troubled and conflicted young man, but the music he made showed a spark of brilliance that suggested great possibilities lay in store. His fourth album, XO, was released at the end of August 1998 as the follow-up to Either/Or, the record that marked his big breakthrough as far as the pundits were concerned, and his first for the now-defunct Dreamworks Records imprint. It found him on a creative roll, attracting notice from critics, contemporaries and fans alike. An album that was, by turns, both tender and tenacious, it found Smith playing the vast majority of the instruments and singing with a fragile finesse that took each song to an emotional crest even while alighting with a grace and finesse that ensured a near instant embrace. Songs such as “Oh Well, Okay,” “Tomorrow, Tomorrow,” “Pistseleh,” “Bottle Up and Explode!” and “Sweet Adeline” mine a wistful intimacy that’s joyful without sounding overly jubilant, just upbeat enough to dissuade any notion that Smith is the morose crooner many imagined him to be. Not that he didn’t have his struggles with depression and substance abuse, but he had the willpower to work through them and make music possessing a lilt and charm that belied any external pressures.
More remarkably still, XO was a solo LP in the truest sense, given that the outside contributors made only cameo appearances on odd individual songs. Smith’s acapella, choir-like vocals on the concluding song of the set, “I Didn’t Understand,” is all the more remarkable for its similarity to SMiLE-era Beach Boys, but the sentiments expressed seemingly hint at the darker desires summoned by his inner demons. “What a fucking joke,” he sings, belying the sweetness of the sonics. “I always feel like shit, I don’t know why.”
Likewise, there’s no better example of that juxtaposition of sweetness and sadness than the third track in, “Waltz #2 (XO).” A lilting combination of sway and serenity eased along by its gilded piano phrasing, the melody belies the bittersweet sentiment thrust on him by an uncaring lover. “You’re no good… but I’m going to love you anyhow.”
That duality is at the very core of XO, which makes it all the more mesmerizing, especially in retrospect. Clearly Smith was conflicted, the very essence of a troubled artist forced to confront his demons while laying himself bare in the process for the listener to process. And yet, setting the psychological trauma aside, it’s a gorgeous record, a truly magnificent requiem to an artist who had only just begun his ascent to accomplishments that lay in store with each succeeding effort.