From one and a half minutes in, it’s obvious that XO is not just another Elliott Smith record.
The loud explosion of noise in album-opener ‘Sweet Adeline’ signalled exactly what XO would be: a defiant, diverse, and emotional release that displays Elliott Smith’s full potential and immense talents.
15 years on, XO is still an entrancing, and at times harrowing listen with many of the lyrics taking on new, painful meanings following Smith’s tragic death in October 2003, five years after the record’s release.
XO was Smith’s fourth LP, but his first with a major label, Dreamworks Records, and despite the much increased budget and pressures, it still retains his creativity and understated brilliance. It is no doubt the ‘biggest’ and most ambitious album that he released, but it’s also the most restrained and subtle, as well as his highest selling.
In an interview with Rolling Stone, Smith spoke about this transition to a major label, saying “sometimes people look at major labels as simply money-making machines, they’re actually composed of individuals who are real people, and there’s a part of them that needs to feel that part of their job is to put out good music”.
As with all of Elliott Smith’s work, XO is intensely personal with devastatingly vulnerable lyrics. The singer fell into depression following signing with the label, and attempted to take his life on at least one occasion. The album was written during this time, and this debilitating emotional struggle is reflected across the 14 songs.“Smith’s own music has served as this ‘puzzle piece’ in many people’s lives, often communicating, and putting to words and music what others couldn’t.”
XO is strongly introspective, displaying the brutal self-consciousness and low self-esteem that Smith could tragically not overcome as many songs seemingly see him talking directly to himself and his troubles.
This is seen on ‘Oh Well, Okay’, when Smith describes someone who “couldn’t figure out what made [them] so unhappy”, while ‘Pitseleh’ sees him lament “I’m not half what I wish I was” in a fragile voice that seems constantly on the verge of tears.
That same song also includes the line “I could never be the puzzle pieces”, but Smith’s own music has served as this ‘puzzle piece’ in many people’s lives, often communicating, and putting to words and music what others couldn’t.
‘I Didn’t Understand’ is the most intimately introspective song on XO, detailing a brutally real search for happiness and meaning, where Smith confides that “you’d soon be leaving me alone like I’m supposed to be tonight, tomorrow, and everyday” .
‘Oh Well, Okay’
The concluding line of “you once talked to me about love and you painted pictures of a never-neverland / I could have gone to that place / But I didn’t understand” typifies a lot of the themes that pervade Smith’s work; a poetic, confronting, and understated search for reason.
There’s one thing that Elliott Smith doesn’t get completely right though. The line “there’s nothing here that you’ll miss” has been proved obviously wrong following his death, with an overwhelming outpouring of grief and adoration still felt across the world ten years later.
This is a testament to Smith’s remarkable ability to emotionally connect directly with the listener, most evident on this, the album in question. Every song no doubt has its own personal meanings and stories behind them for Smith, but the true beauty of his music is that so many people have been able to make their own interpretations. It’s subtle and ambiguous enough for anyone and everyone to relate it to their own life and troubles, and meaningful enough to make a real difference. It’s something truly special that only music can achieve.
XO came only five months after Smith achieved widespread fame and recognition following his music being featured in Good Will Hunting, culminating with a performance at The Academy Awards, but according to the Nebraskan-born musician, this success didn’t have a big affect on him. “I don’t feel like things are very changed,” he said in an interview on a Dutch TV show. “I do the same things that I did before, I think about the same things, I’m the wrong kind of person to be really big and famous.”