Elliott Smith

DreamWorks Records, 1998


REVIEW BY: Candy North


I wasn't sure how I'd like this disc, but I've ended up loving it.

At first, I listened over and over and couldn't quite "get it." Was it merely an airy, light pop confection or was there some guts hidden in there? After repeated listens, I'd have to affirm that experiencing XO is like biting into a candy bar with a razor blade hidden inside. The music seems all fluffy and sweet, but the lyrics bite back with a vengeance.

Smith has honed to perfection the concept of the flawless three-minute pop song, filling this disc with many numbers even coming in at 2:30 or slightly less. The songs reminded me alternatively of the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds to Chris Stamey's version of the db's pop songs. Smith's vocals alternatively have the rasp and vigor or surprising tenderness of early Alex Chilton circa Big Star. Considering those comparisons, this guy has my vote for a great pop force.

With his lush acoustic arrangements and heart-melting harmonies, Smith has put together a collection of songs that are a vocal opus to disillusioned love wrapped up in a gossamer musical package. He convincingly portrays the wide-eyed shock of a lover left in the dust through his sweet vocals without being cloying. His themes range from alienation and confusion about love to simply being blind about it.

One moment he's not wanting to know where his lover is because he doesn't believe he's "the puzzle pieces" of love's solution. Next, in the one stinging example of lyrical anger in "I Didn't Understand", he alternatively laments "What a fucking joke" the relationship has become to his own self deprecation of "I always feel like shit." Despite his rather pessimistic view of love, he never seems to fully blame his lovers for screwing things up, or least they aren't implicated as the real reason love has failed or deserted him. Smith fairly croaks with "Oh Well OK" that he "couldn't figure out what made you so unhappy." Apparently, the cause and the blame fall mostly on his shoulders.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

The closing track, "I Didn't Understand", a musically angelic ode to love lost, conjures:

"You'll soon be leaving me

Alone like I'm suppose to be

Tonight, tomorrow and everyday

There's nothing here you'll miss."

Something tells me this is a guy with a road littered with broken love affairs or at least one very unhappy breakup that influenced the entire album's worth of gut-wrenching misery.

My favorite tracks on the disc change daily, depending on the dourness of my own emotional mood. "Sweet Adeline" has sweeping, rapturous melodies, nicely augmented by some backing strings and Smith's acoustically innocent vocals. "Waltz #2," perhaps one of the best tracks along with "Waltz #1," showcases Smith's ability to write dejectedly and angrily but is contradicted through the vulnerability his voice projects to the true nature of his emotions. "Waltz #1" is as slippery and dreamlike as a Bach minuet and most reminded me of Chris Stamey's ballads such as "I'm In Love."

My other current favorite that keeps running through my head over and over is "Amity," a song showcasing Smith's ability to do falsetto singing as well as Chilton did on Radio City during his heyday.

Smith's absolute obsession with love's pitfalls never gets too overbearing or self-pitying . This difficult balance is accomplished mostly from Smith's ability to use his voice as an instrument which has just the right soft touch. He may be singing about dark despair but he sprinkles in those confetti-spun vocals and melodies and you just can't feel completely gloomy while giving this disc a serious listen.

My only true criticism of this disc is the songs sound too much alike. There is no great variance in the theme, musically or emotionally, on XO. But then again, doesn't that make his argument stronger as his point seems to be there is no sense or happiness within love's treacherous grip?

My advice is to listen to this disc a lot. It's something that grows on you slowly and blossoms with each listen. If you've recently broken up with someone (or wish you could), this is definitely a well-suited tonic for the love damaged and love challenged.

So, lay back, take a deep breath, and revel in this beautiful and melancholic record. Somehow, Smith manages to make you feel like even though love stinks, it can still be a beautiful, cathartic experience. And XO is just the vehicle to purge your dispirited romantic soul.

Rating: A-

User Rating: Not Yet Rated


© 1998 Candy North and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of DreamWorks Records, and is used for informational purposes only.