Elliott Smith’s ‘XO’ Turns 20 Today, Let’s Revisit This Fantastic Album
This review of Elliott Smith’s ‘XO’ was first published 8 years ago, but today marks the 20th anniversary of the iconic album. So before revisiting it one more time, here is the review of an album that does not stop converting new listeners to the beauty of a singer-songwriter who disappeared too soon.
In which Elliott Smith sells out to a major label? ‘XO’ (1998) is Elliott’s Smith’s fourth album but his first work released on the major label DreamWorks. ‘XO’ feels more produced than the previous ones, with a much fuller sound, and, except for a few songs, Elliott plays all the instruments, from acoustic guitar to piano, bass drums, Chamberlain, mellotron-track piano… Nevertheless, it is not a departure from what he had done before, it is just the same authenticity with the use of a more orchestral sound combined with his amazing guitar picking style. As Aimee Mann put it in an interview: ‘He is on DreamWorks, but, believe me, he’s not modifying himself at all.’ A possible title for the album was ‘Grand Mal,’ but as there was a band who was already using that moniker, Elliott had to come back to his first idea, ‘XO’. However, he recorded several songs during the ‘XO’ sessions that do not figure on the album and among them, there is a song named ‘Grand Mal.’
The 14 songs offer a vast area of musical landscapes from an a cappella song, ‘I didn’t understand,’ whose overlapped vocals remind a Brian Wilson composition, to a drum-driven tune ‘Waltz #2,’ or a cheerful piano composition “Baby Britain.’ But as always with Elliott, the lyrics can be disturbing and poignant, and if people first love the album for the music, the lyrics should get all your attention.
Even though it is not a concept album, there are some common themes that keep coming back in the songs, themes like failures and deceptions over relationships, alienation, and desire of sabotage when the perspective of happiness seems too uncomfortably close, whereas hope that things can change is always there. Some songs are heavily tainted by childhood memories like ‘Waltz #2′, a song about his mother singing in a karaoke bar in front of Elliott’s stepfather. This line is directly addressed to him: ‘Tell Mr. man with impossible plans to just leave me alone’, whereas the most famous line in the song (and perhaps the most famous line in all Elliott’s songs) ‘I’m never gonna know you now, but I’m gonna love you anyhow’ has become an anthem for the lost fans after his tragic death.
Titles of several popular songs are used in ‘XO’, and two of them are in ‘Waltz #2′, ‘Cathy’s Clown’ by the Everly Brothers and ‘You’re No Good’ sung among others by Dee Dee Warwick and Linda Ronstadt. Being about troubled relationships and beaten women, the choice of the songs subtly add to the uneasiness of the atmosphere, and ‘Waltz#2’ translates all the unsaid when abuse occurs in a family and the inertia induced by fear. Because ‘Pitseleh’ means ‘little one’, the song is probably also an evocation of his troubled childhood, although we are not sure if he is talking about a failed love relationship with someone or himself.
Two other musical references are appropriately used in the Beatlesque ‘Baby Britain,’ a song whose evocative imagery of ocean, alcohol, and isolation is largely open for interpretation, ‘Revolver’s been turned over/And now it’s ready once again/The radio was playing ‘Crimson and Clover’.
The desire for sedation and isolation from pain is all summarized in the line ‘Deaf and dumb and done’ which reappears in two songs, ‘Sweet Adeline’ and ‘Tomorrow, Tomorrow’, whereas, the playful ‘Amity’ named after a girlfriend, was written in a couple of minutes, just for the way the words sounded.
‘Everybody Cares, Everybody Understands’ which deals with his time in a rehab clinic in Arizona, is mostly a fuck-you song, a tone that Elliott recurrently used during his career, as if he wanted to reject this depressed songwriter image and refuse the attention and false sympathy he is getting for this reason. It is also an affirmation of living the life he wants because it is his only path as an artist.
There is also a large utilization of pictures as metaphors for memories, regrets or even anger, like in the beautiful and almost classical-sounding ‘Waltz #1’: ‘Every time the day darkens down and goes away pictures open in my head/Of me and you silent and cliché all the things we did and didn’t say,’ or like in the slow and quiet ‘Oh Well, Okay’ which evokes the melancholy of pictures disappearing ‘The bleeding color gone to black, dying like a day’, ‘I got pictures, I just don’t see it anymore,’ or even in the opening track ‘Sweet Adeline’ whose title was inspired by his grandmother’s singing club, Sweet Adelines International: ‘Cut this picture into you and me/Burn it backwards kill this history.’
The utilization of colors in the songs add to the scenery of the album in the powerful ‘Bottle Up and Explode!’ a song about repressing frustrations and anger inside yourself until the emotional outburst makes you see ‘red white and blue,’ looking like a sort of confused fireworks in your head. But the most ‘colorful’ song is ‘Bled White,’ which evokes Portland, the ‘rose city on the 409,’ the ‘white city on the yellow line’ which bled white. It’s probably not a coincidence if ‘Bled White’ is the 7th song of an album of 14th, it is sort of a center point because of its essential meaning. The city/world is colorless and bleak, but Elliott is ‘a color reporter’ and his task, as an artist, is to make it bloom in full colors, at the risk of being ‘high to drag the sunset down/And paint this paling town.’ Without getting noticed, he subtly puts the finger on the burden of the artist to go beyond the ordinary, a heroic figure ready to make a sacrifice of himself.
Preceding ‘Bled White,’ the beautiful melody of ‘Independence Day’ brings hope to the album by using a metaphor of the butterfly metamorphosis: change is possible, things are going to work out despite everything else. The line ‘You only live a day/but it’s brilliant anyway’ may be seen as a sad prophecy, but it should not be.
As Neil Young said ‘Some people have taken pure bullshit/And turned it into gold.’ With its introspective lyrics and its brilliant melodies, ‘XO’ is a brutally honest work, but also a healing journey.