Elliott Smith's XO: A Wonderful, Unforgettable and Beautiful Modern Pop Masterpiece

Jun 18, 2004 (Updated Jun 18, 2004)
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Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Beautiful, dark, thoughtful, intelligent, and unique


The Bottom Line: XO is dark, but it is also impeccably arranged and performed. XO is just further proof that Smith was a master of his own art.

Elliott Smith was in life only fleetingly recognized for his innate talent for songwriting and performance. After recording his darkly reflective and sorrowful songs for three separate indie albums, he was awarded the chance of a lifetime by director Gus Van Sant. Van Sant, a long time fan, asked for permission from the Nebraska native to use his music in the upcoming Good Will Hunting. Smith not only obliged but also wrote and recorded new tracks for the film.

Of course Good Will Hunting was a sleeper hit and a star-making move for its co-stars and writers. Smith too benefited from the critical praise offered to the film—he himself was a surprise Oscar nominee for the song Miss Misery. Up until that point in time, Smith was something of a long shot to record for a major label. Surprise of all surprises, he was signed to the fledgling Dreamworks Records and in 1998 he released his major label debut XO.

Prior to XO, Smith gained notoriety (albeit underground and relatively modest by most standards) by way of his second and third albums. His first was a very small, lo-fi affair that landed him a deal with Kill Rock Stars. Kill Rock Stars then, of course, released both 1995’s Elliott Smith and 1997’s Either/Or. Either/Or was the album that put him on the map and is often regarded as the singer-songwriter’s seminal work. XO expands on his earlier efforts with lush soundscapes, rich production, and beautiful arrangements.

On one level, XO is a pop album complete with beautiful melodies and memorable arrangements. This is the part of Smith that likely appeals to the widest audience. Though, it takes very little effort to realize that the songs contained here ooze a deep, profound sadness. What is most remarkable is the fact that the words seem to emanate from Smith’s very being—he is genuinely unhappy as are his songs. But nonetheless XO is impossible not to appreciate and love and admire.

Fourteen wonderful songs are collected here, on Smith’s fourth album. Regardless of how you look at XO it is lovely and amazing. Wielding immense writing talent and a smooth, crystalline, and calm vocal style on these songs, Smith manages to make a great impression. Opening with the dark folk-pop of Sweet Adeline and closing with the harmonically brilliant I Didn’t Understand the album is both cohesive and consistent. If forced to compare the tracks and the sound to another artist or band, I would have to say that Smith is a combination of Simon & Garfunkel and The Beatles with a little Nick Drake tossed in for a dash of dramatic good measure. With roots like those, it is clear to see why Smith was a musical force to be reckoned with before his untimely suicide (not that there is anything such as a “timely” suicide…) in October 2003.

There is nothing wrong with XO as far as music goes. If I would have to say that there is anything at all wrong with the album, it would be that too few people own it (same goes for Either/Or). Every word I have to say about this CD is positive. Every time I listen to XO I find myself increasingly impressed. It is immediately appealing but the lyrics and dark undertones take further listens to really sink in. This multi-layered aesthetic is once again proof that Smith was just as special as his music.

As with all faultless albums, I find it difficult to cull songs I like more than others. There’s no sense in discouraging anybody away from anything on XO. Rather, I would just like to wholly embrace the disc and speak the tiniest bit to the songs I really, really, really enjoy without taking away from the tracks I’m not quite as drawn to. Please don’t mistake my favoritism for saying “this song is better than that one.” I do think that XO has something to offer for every fan of singer-songwriters, pop, and/or rock.

The moments that are the most striking, evocative, and memorable are spread throughout Smith’s effort. The delicately plucked acoustic guitar of Sweet Adeline draws me near to the album as does Smith’s fey voice. I like that song quite a lot—it is unexpectedly traditional which is an element that works nicely in the context of this otherwise earthy pop/rock album.

Baby Britain is a lovely piano-driven tin pan sort of song. I like this slant quite a lot (though here he reminds me of Rufus Wainwright more than Simon & Garfunkel or the Beatles). Independence Day is equally memorable but in a softer, much more straightforward sort of way. Waltz #1 is a sweeping, gorgeous, melodic piece. It could easily be the best song on this entire album regardless of my preferences. Finally, I really adore Oh Well, Okay.

I don’t want to ruin the sheer beauty and impeccable arrangement of XO with my mere words. My suggestion is to buy it. For full price, used (yeah right, as if you can find it used and cheaper anyway…) or borrow it from a friend. I really don’t care. Just get your paws on the disc and enjoy it. It really is a shame that Elliott Smith is dead, but some souls are just not meant to last. He will likely get the posthumous acclaim he may or may not have wanted in life. With his death, his music is forever immortalized as great and there will never be anything to tarnish that reputation.

Rating: 5/5 stars

Track Listing:
01. Sweet Adeline
02. Tomorrow Tomorrow
03. Waltz #2 (XO)
04. Baby Britain
05. Pitseleh
06. Independence Day
07. Bled White
08. Waltz #1
09. Amity
10. Oh Well, Okay
11. Bottle up and Explode!
12. Question Mark
13. Everybody Cares, Everybody Understands
14. I Didn't Understand

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