Elliott Smith – XO

XOA 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.

2 thoughts

  1. Perhaps our most significant divergence thus far – I may not like Radiohead, but at least I strongly respect them in a variety of ways. But this? Elliot “Down on my Fucken’ Knees” Smith? I better acknowledge straight away that I absolutely empathise with his pain and humanity, but his art is shite. God, comparing him to Shakespeare and Ye Olde Beatles is an act of defiant canonising I could respect for almost anyone else, but this fucker? Give me a break.

    Take your brief sample of his songwriting. “Cut this picture into you and me” – a pretty generic image; cut, picture, and you and me are all lazy lyrical cliches. That said, I could easily accept this if he then painted me said picture, but I bet you a million he doesn’t. “Burn it backwards, kill this history” – He didn’t paint it, instead going for three more high-school poetry cliches (burn, kill, history) and a meaningless one (backwards? What’s burning it backwards? Backwards though history, is that burning away your past? Why is the picture being cut into you and me in the first place? Inconsistency is fine in life, but surely art is supposed to bang it into shape). “Make it over, make it stay away” – Another lazy lyricist’s favourite trick is the generic ‘it’, which you can just chuck into a sentence without ever really having defined what ‘it’ is, to seem very meaningful and deep. “Or hate’ll sing the ending that love started to say” – I assume this means that if he doesn’t cut it off then the relationship which started well will end badly? Fine sentiment, but single-word cliches abound – hate as an over-the-top word for negative emotion; ending and starting; it being love and hate saying and singing things, rather than the writer taking blame for his own faults. Compare it to the Beatles, sure – they were never amazing lyricists, though many levels better than this in the imaginativeness of their angles on love. But William “The Shakespeare of Literature” Shakespeare? Again, give me a break.

    I’m going to end this with a section from my favourite amateur reviewer, a shining diamond in the weird mixture of rock fetishism and biased tokenism of RateYourMusic.com, one mr LimedIBagels. I agree with everything here, although I might switch heart and soul in the final line, depending on how you’d care to define it. Again, I care more about Smith’s genuinely sad reality than this guy does – but that doesn’t excuse the *art*.

    “I despise self-pity.
    I just have no time for it. It adds nothing, it helps nobody – in fact, if anything it slows things down – and it trivializes the sufferings (and achievements) of the rest of the world. Being sad is easier than being happy; whispering is easier than singing; shuffles are easier than hooks; vague, sulky irony is easier than truth. FIGHT, YOU FUCKING MORONS! DON’T GO GENTLY INTO THAT GOOD NIGHT! EVEN IF YOU FAIL, AT LEAST YOU CAN FUCKIN’ FIGHT! LAZY MUSIC! BORING MUSIC! THIS IS NOT A LANGUAGE!
    Yeah, I kinda let loose for a second there. But I’m not taking it back, because Either/Or is a pathetic album. Not in the sense of being particularly bad – at worst, it’s just ignorable, and at best it’s mildly but forgettably tuneful – but in the sense of being, well, pathetic. There’s something about the thin acoustic guitar moving indifferently over Smith’s frail, malnourished, oh-so-very-earnest voice that I find incredibly pitiful…and yet it’s not pitiful enough to elicit my sympathy, because the music is so plainly unremarkable about the feelings I’m supposed to be receiving. There’s no projection with Elliott Smith; I never feel like I’m getting the full story, because he’s too vague to cut right to the heart of things. Like, I was never that big of a Nirvana fan, but it’s hard to deny that Kurt Cobain at least seemed to sing and write with his heart and his soul. Elliott Smith may’ve had a heart, but he never hinted at a soul.”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. FUCK! I had this whole reply to everything you said and my browser decided to shut down for fun. So if this reply feels a bit fast forwarded, that’s why.

      I love this response! I’m all for opposing points of view. Never stop, you audiophiliac motherfucker. I’ve always taken the first line as:

      “Cut this picture into you and me” A frequent practice after breaking up with someone was cutting out your ex’s face in photographs.

      “Burn it backwards, kill this history” Lots of people I’ve talked to think this line was about burning said photograph. I think it’s about burning backwards, as in unburning it. As in keeping all those Ex photos because if you don’t

      “Hate’ll say the ending love started to say” It’s pretty common to say “my ex the asshole/bitch” but it’s harder to hold on to the good memories. I think Elliott is saying keep the good memories, even if it hurts, cause it’s worse to lose them. Memories of whom? Sweet Adeline, of course.

      I’m fine if you think I’m putting waaaaay too much into something that’s flat. I’m even fine if you hate Elliott Smith music forever. I’m all about that Dylan Thomas not gentle nighting like a punk. I fucking love it. Rage, motherfuckers. But where I don’t agree with this attitude is with clinical suicidal depression. Once you see them shits in the reals, you don’t question it’s fucking existence. Ever. This shit is not the same as being “sad”. From what I read from your response, I think you agree. It’s not someone’s fault if they got some bad wiring. Fuck, if life didn’t give you enough brain goodies, the store-bought ones are just fine. Elliott lived in a time where most people thought depression wasn’t a thing and just some made up shit so people could continue being “sad” and “lazy”. In these instances, I think telling someone to “rage” is, to steal another person’s word, dangerous, ignorant, and fucking pathetic.

      I’m not getting into the “who did suicidal depression the best: Cobain or Smith”, debate because that’s a fucked up gameshow and it’s not the Brightly style. If I don’t like something, I just don’t fucking write about it. I’m all for criticism to help improve art, but there’s a fuckton of it out there and it’s hard for me to see the point when both parties are dead. That Dylan rage doesn’t mean being a dick, it means giving a shit. It’s easier to burn than build like it’s easier to whisper than sing. And I think we can both agree, neither party whispered and that’s fucking commendable.

      Like

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