XO – Elliott Smith


Elliott Smith


DreamWorks Records


I am officially declaring today, and every October 21st hereafter, to be Elliott Smith Day.  At least on this website, seeing as I can’t make it a national holiday at all.  But, you may ask, “Why?  Why, Ryan, have you chosen the day of his death instead of his birth to be Elliott Smith Day?  Are you that freaking morbid?”  And yes, I am that morbid, actually (I even read the book The Encyclopedia of Dead Rock Stars, maybe the most morbid book ever).  But, no, I chose this day because I felt like it.  So, meh to you.

I won’t say too much about his death, as the story has been told so many times.  Basically, he might have committed suicide (I’m with those who believe he did) by stabbing himself twice with a kitchen knife (God, what a way to do so).  His music, many have stated, reflects this as they believe it to be depressing, sad music.  Which is true.  But I’m drawn into it because of the hope that is so prevalent in his songs.

XO is a notable album for Elliott Smith.  It marks the change between his mainly acoustic folk style and his layered rock found on Figure 8.  Without this album, the jump in musicality would’ve seemed even more strange.  I’ve always been more of a fan of his later textured stuff, but his acoustic style is so intimate, it’s hard not to get drawn in.

“Sweet Adeline” is the first track on the album, an experience to draw his fans into his new style, it seems.  It starts as a slower acoustic folky song, with great lyrics (Smith is one of my favorite lyricists).  That is until he sings the title of the song, with a huge instrumental track coming out of nowhere.  Piano, drums, guitars, bass, harmony vocal lines all meld to create a memorable song.

The second track, “Tomorrow Tomorrow” brings us back into Smith’s acoustic work, with great fingerpicking guitar.  He still keeps his vocal harmony layers in the background, which he’s always been really adept at doing.  Smith knows how to write a good song, and it feels like “Tomorrow Tomorrow” is inviting you in.

The strangely titled “Waltz #2” (only strange because “Waltz #1” comes after it in the album’s sequence) follows, and it’s a brilliant song.  It has a great melodic line, intro’d (that’s not a word, by the way) by a guitar and then a tinking piano.  The thing about Elliott Smith is that every word he sings has feeling placed into it – he means everything he sings and writes.  Hell, every instrument has feeling in it.  So, when he sings “I’m never gonna know you now, but I’m gonna love you any how”, the listener can’t help but feel a sense of relevance.  It’s a feeling that Smith captures perfectly. 

“Baby Britain” is one of my favorite songs, and rather upbeat for Smith.  Again, we’re treated to textures of piano and electric guitar.  Clearly, Smith’s music has been evolving.  It is a pretty straightforward rock song, but it has Smith’s clever words over it.  “Floating over a sea of vodka” is one of my favorite lines ever (followed by “For someone has as smart, you’d be a work of art”).  Overall, his sense of melody and arrangement creates such an interesting song.

“Pitseleh” (Little One in Yiddish) is the fifth track.  Another mainly acoustic song, Smith let’s us into the song with a whisper.  This quiet sense of passion is what made Smith so intriguing.  It’s a stunning, beautiful song.

“Independence Day” is one of his more well-known songs, and for good reason.  It starts with his distinct acoustic style, easing into the more layered approach.  Another alluring song, this is one with the hope so predominant in his work. “And a bright ideal, tomorrow, Ooh, don’t go too far” explains it better than I’d be able to.

“Bled White” has such a great rhythmic guitar to it, bringing the audience in immediately.  I almost wish that this was an all-acoustic song, but the way it is currently is so absorbing anyway.  So, it doesn’t matter too much I guess. 

“Waltz #1” and “Oh Well, Okay” are too slower songs, that I group together, because I don’t have much to say about them.  The first is a delicate piano ballad.  The latter is one of the weaker songs on the album, which is not to say bad.  It has some great double-tracked vocal harmonies, but it’s never grown on me personally.

Track nine, “Amity” starts with a strange repetition of the title.  It’s a surprisingly heavy track featured on the album, with Smith singing in his distinctive voice.  This provides an excellent contrast to the immense sound behind him.  And Smith knows how to provide an interesting arrangement by stopping the song for a moment, before launching into a tasteful guitar solo.  And the strings behind it.  Really intense.

“Bottle up and Explode!” is one of three songs that Jon Brion plays on.  I did not know that Brion played on this album before I bought it, otherwise I would’ve bought it much sooner.  Brion is one of my favorite musician’s, almost everything he’s done I will listen to (except for producing Kanye West.  Just no.).  And Jon Brion combined with Elliott Smith is just orgasmic (Yeah, okay, maybe that’s exaggerating a bit).  I was expecting the song itself to be a little more intense, but it’s still an awesome song.

“A Question Mark” follows the style put forward by “Bottle Up” and “Amity”.  It even has horns and brass on it.  Thoroughly enjoyable.

And that leads me to the final two songs, put back to back in such a way as to invite comparisons.  I mean, really, to title them “Everybody Cares, Everybody Understands” and “I Didn’t Understand” is just asking people to look at them together.

The first starts off with his acoustic guitar, then breaking into a great double-tracked vocal line again, with a rambling guitar line underneath it.  Then other instruments kick in a third through, as just to imply his more developed style will be prominent in the future.  The end of the song is just brilliant, and would’ve made for a great ending to the album.  But he takes it one step further by juxtaposing the next song as the final piece.

“I Didn’t Understand” is a scathing, caustic, scornful song with some of his most biting lyrics ever.  Smith even targets this feeling by using the word “f*ck” (and even “sh*t”), such a rarity in his lyrics that when he does use it (especially twice like here!) it makes this scornful feeling even that much more prominent.  And what a great way to end the album.  It’s a capella.  Talk about using the most with textures.  It’s his standard double-tracked melody over his own layered voices providing an amazing background.  The whole song is stunning, and the best way to end the album.

So, yes, I have picked the day of Smith’s death to celebrate his body of work and his life.  I really hope to dispel the idea that his songs were all depressing and about sadness.  His songs were so delicate, intricately written, and so much more about hope than one might expect from one who (probably) took his own life.  Whatever his mindset was at the time of his death (which I’ve heard was a pretty terrible mindset), his attitude towards his music was completely different.  This is his art, and not only does it provide great insight into his character, you can feel his presence in every song, but it shows such feeling was put into each and every moment of it.  XO, while not a masterpiece, is an amazing album full of such moments.

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One Response to “XO – Elliott Smith”

  1. […] mentioned numerous times before, but I get a huge nerd-boner for anything that has to do with Jon Brion.  As both a […]

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