A lot more people would enjoy Elliott Smith if he sang in a twanged gravely baritone. The wisp of Elliot’s tenor can sound odd when combined with lyrics taken from the lonely end of the bar. You know, that place where tales of “the one that got away” morph into overdrinking, angry outbursts, thrown shot glasses, thrown punches, drunkenly slapping some horse cop named Dwight, and, eventually, getting the living shit kicked out of you. Tenors aren’t supposed to be in these shitty situations. They’re supported to live in the world of free love and sex with endless triumphant orgasms and perfectly smooth LSD trips. Not Elliott. Reincarnate William Shakespeare, double his serving of hopeless romantic (yes, double that shit), give him clinical depression, throw him into the thick of the ’90s, and give this sad soup all the talent of the Beatles, and you end up with Elliott Smith. Think I’m over the top? Think I doth promote too much? Take the first fucking line from the first fucking track off this album. Tell me this doesn’t have Bard’s fat Hancock written all over it: “Cut this picture into you and me / Burn it backwards, kill this history / Make it over, make it stay away / Or hate’ll sing the ending that love started to say.” Holy fucking shit. Did you just read that? I need a nap after unpacking all that. This album is a goddamn master course in songwriting.
Elliott found fame, before his suicide, with his previous album Either/Or. Most motherfuckers still consider this to be his magnum opus. It’s the album with all the catchy accessible tracks like “Say Yes” and “Between the Bars” from this brooding prince. Its songs were featured on The Good Will Hunting Soundtrack. It’s the album that pushed him out of the small pond of Portland and into an Atlantic goddamn ocean of shit. For the royal duke of despondent, fame wasn’t the best move mentally or emotionally. It threw him into a dark hole of drinking and drug use which fueled his depression draft horse to plow even more emotional bullshit. Elliott wasn’t doing well. His loved ones noticed, so they performed an intervention. He peaced the fuck out off to Brooklyn where he wrote XO.
XO is the musical memoir of a brilliant mind unravelling as it struggles to keep up with the anticlimactic nature of fame, a deep forever loneliness, and an angst at all fucking existence. If you sit down with these songs, you know exactly what Elliott is feeling. That shit ain’t easy to do. That’s bundles of talent backing that shit up. This album is also filled with some of Elliott’s slickest production. It includes a fuckton of vocal overdubs, piano lines, and a horn and string section. Each of these songs is like a poem wishing to be deconstructed. And they’re best realized, in their fullest form, when put alongside their instrumentals. This album makes all the angsty lyrics from Kurt Cobain look like a fucking puppet show. Show these lyrics to a metal band and they’d tell you to take it easy. Elliott encapsulated an age, an attitude, and a generation. He turned one of the worst moments of his life into a beautiful piece of art. He was a goddamn powerhouse of a songwriter and he never needed to bark to make his point. This frayed beautiful darkness eased out of a clean wispy tenor that was supposed to tell you that everybody cares and everyone understands. He didn’t growl about a broke down truck or sad politicians. He three-part harmonized existential fear into the void and its echo was a stunned silence. He was one of the best, bar none, even if you’ve got to go to the lonely side of the place to prove it.