Review Summary: A brilliant work of art, Elliott Smith takes his music to a new level with enhanced studio production and more ensemble statements.
When I think about fantastic singer-songwriters, albums like XO do not come to mind. Instead, I dream up sparse, empty records laced with stark emotion and pure, unadulterated humanity. Damien Rice’s O, Nick Drake’s Pink Moon, Johnny Cash’s American Recordings: all of these demonstrate what I consider the definitive guitar-wielding singer-songwriter album. I came upon Elliott Smith late in my musical progression, but once I decided to check him out, I went on an Elliott Smith album spree. I picked up New Moon, Roman Candle, and XO. Randomly, I played XO first and I was not prepared for the musical odyssey Smith set out for me. Ironically, the opening statements of Sweet Adeline
were exactly what I expected from the album- interpersonal lyrics with simple yet brilliant guitar. Just before I settled into the setting the song laid out, a deep bass swell led the song into one of the most beautiful choruses on the album, a huge band statement triumphant and resplendent, with deep piano, jumpy bass, and atmospheric drums. With major-keyed, uplifting vocal melodies straight out of a Beatles song, XO has only just begun.
XO begins to make sense once one knows that it is actually his major label debut. The refined, perfect production style and full instrumentation becomes possible only because of DreamWorks Records. Riding the success of Miss Misery
from Good Will Hunting and his Oscar nomination, DreamWorks saw Elliott as the next big thing. He had incredible opportunity. He often cited the Beatles as his primary influence, listening to them all his life and constantly covering them in concert, and no one came as close to recreating their magic than him. With the powerful studio at DreamWorks, Smith composes a lush pop record on this album rather than the introverted, somnolent records of his past on Kill Rock Stars. Songs like Baby Britain
and Independence Day
show Smith’s ability to arrange for a full ensemble. Baby Britain
outlines a sound that Belle and Sebastian may have found inspiration from for their Dear Catastrophe Waitress album- a simple structure with a pseudo-jazzy feel to it. The latter uses a drum loop as its basis, bringing warm Rhodes keyboard and brilliant chord progressions to the melodic side of the song. Smith’s full ensemble statements make XO more complete than his previous efforts, making each song reach its full potential.
Still, Smith wrote each song on his acoustic guitar, and every song finds its basic structure in the guitar. In this foundation, the album never forgets Elliott’s introspective, reserved manner. He makes sure that he never loses sight of his own personal integrity; DreamWorks Records would not influence him to become just another singer. Pitseleh
, meaning “little one” in Yiddish, sounds most like Smith’s older solo work, primarily acoustic guitar. The guitar work is busy enough that Elliott did not need to add any other instruments besides the small piano solo to break up his verses. Even on songs like Bottle Up and Explode
, which uses a full band, exposes the way Smith composed the song, playing through the form once on acoustic before anything else and letting that voice dominate the instrumentation. Oddly enough, the most introspective, simple song uses no guitar. Album closer I Don’t Understand
finds Elliott tracking his voice multiple times to create a beautiful, somber a cappella song. The harmonies sound baroque-influenced, at some points sounding straight out of a Bach composition. XO is simply an expansion of his acoustic guitar compositions.
As if the brilliant music compositions were not enough, Elliott has a complete second dimension to his songs- the lyrics. Topics on the album range from family memories to friends to the simple song about love, and Smith writes about each effectively and smartly. Without getting too complex, he manages to make points that reach far beyond their literal interpretation. Lines like “There's a kid a floor below me saying brother can you spare/Sunshine for a brother, Old Man Winter's in the air” leave many interpretations, but his imagery and allusions are beyond comparison. He speaks of suicide often in an almost prophetic way, mentioning it in Sweet Adeline
. The way he constructs his words around his melodies is remarkable; there is a distinct connection between the music and the lyrics. At times, he sings so apathetically it seems he has no idea what he is saying, but it fits the flat, quiet manner of the music perfectly. Other times, he joins in the triumphant glee of his compositions. Smith’s lyrics and vocal style bring the complete package to his album.
Elliott Smith disproves the assumption that major labels make artists sell out. He did anything but that on XO. He simply took his music to a brand new level with the equipment DreamWorks gave to him. From the lush, beautiful waltzes to the fun and upbeat middle section of the album, Smith covers a broad range of musical styles while always maintaining his distinctive musical qualities. Each song contains his lyrical and musical brilliance. It seems like the perfect album, almost too perfect. But if Elliott Smith has taught us anything, it’s the flaws of something that make it beautiful, and maybe that’s why XO seems so perfect.