All The Things We Did and Didn't Say - Elliott Smith's XO turns 20

In October of 2017, my wife and I took a vacation to the Pacific Northwest—visiting both Seattle (and areas outside of it), as well as Portland. While in Seattle, we spent part of a day at the Museum of Pop Culture—primarily there for the Jim Henson exhibit that was going on at the time, I had been made aware that Elliott Smith’s piano was somewhere in the museum and we couldn’t leave until I found it.

A 1919 Cable upright, the piano was housed in Portland’s Jackpot! Records recording studio, and was famously used on his Academy Award nominated song, “Miss Misery,” from the film Good Will Hunting, as well as on two songs from his major label debut, XO, released in August of 1998.

We didn’t have to look very hard or travel very far into the museum to find his piano. As you ascend the stairs to get into the museum, mere moments after you have paid your admission, there it is—resting on a ledge, tucked behind a small plexiglass guard, with an informational placard off to the side.

The piano’s sudden appearance in front of me took my by surprise. Maybe I wasn’t ready for it. Prior to this moment, I had wanted to feel something when I saw his piano—I thought seeing it would provide some kind of emotionally cathartic experience for me. 

It didn’t. I felt nothing. Maybe I felt rushed, because my wife wanted to go see the rest of the museum and not stand on a staircase all day with people trying to get around us.

I took a few photos. We continued walking.

My feelings never change a bit, I always feel like shit.
I don’t know why, I guess that I ‘just do.’

XO is, more than likely, not the follow up that longtime fans of Elliott Smith were anticipating at the time. Released just a little over a year after his 1997 effort, Either/Or, his final for the Pacific Northwest indie label Kill Rock Stars, there is a literal night and day difference between the two records.

But if you take a step back, you can see that Smith was working, albeit at his own pace, toward a slightly bigger sound—Either/Or, unlike its predecessors, features ‘full band’ arrangements. During these ramshackle, lo-fi years, ‘full-band’ meant, like, the addition of electric guitar, bass, and a drum kit that, in some cases, sounds like it’s on the verge of falling apart.

In the wake of the minor success that Either/Or had at that time, filmmaker Gus Van Sant tapped Smith to contribute songs—many of them previously released—to his 1997 film, the Matt Damon/Ben Affleck star-making turn, Good Will Hunting. Along with a handful of old Smith songs, he recorded a new one as well, “Miss Misery,” which is the first glimpse of what Elliott Smith was capable of, given enough of a sonic palate (and money, I guess) to work with.

It was during this whirlwind time that Smith walked a fine line of juxtaposition—something he would do throughout his short life and career. There were parts of him that were thriving—while he would shy away from the spotlight and claim in a candid interview that he was ‘the wrong kind of person to be big and famous,’ the successes he saw with Either/Or and “Miss Misery” allowed him to ink a deal with the then fledgling major label, Dreamworks.

It was also around this time where parts of him were sinking deeper into substance abuse and depression. Prior to the drugs he began using during the sessions for Figure 8, Smith had developed a serious drinking problem while promoting Either/Or, and was regularly mixing copious amounts of alcohol with prescription antidepressants. He regularly claimed he wanted to take his own life—trying a few times, with one infamous attempt where he tried to jump off a cliff in North Carolina. Many within his circle of friends in his beloved Portland have stories of staying up with him all night, trying to talk him back down.

While Figure 8 is truly a ‘L.A. record’ for a number of reasons, even though XO was recorded in multiple locations in Los Angeles (and two songs in Portland), it is Smith’s ‘New York record.’ Despite the concern of his friends, Smith abandoned the Pacific Northwest and moved to New York during this time as well.

Kaleidoscopic is a word that best describes the music of XO; rollicking, and also ‘Beatle-esque’ come to mind. It’s a vivid, brightly colored atmosphere, which is kind of funny, in a dark sort of way, considering the lyrical content of many of these songs. But that has always been one of the very best things about Smith as a songwriter—his ability to dress up something incredibly sad or stark with a Technicolor musical arrangement.

20 years after the fact, albums like XO don’t happen anymore; and if they do, it’s not on a major label, and it’s an ambitious undertaking for both the artist willing to put for this much effort, as well as a label of any size that’s willing to back it.

Dreamworks, as a label, was, like, roughly two years old when it released XO—founded by David Geffen, Steven Spielberg, and Jeffrey Katzenberg, the label distributed its releases through Geffen, and had a baffling roster of artists including Rufus Wainwright, Chris Rock, Eels, Morphine, and Henry Rollins. The label itself didn’t even make it a decade before shuttering in 2004 in the merging and folding of imprints into larger entities that regularly occurred during the early 2000s.
Smith claimed inking a deal with a major label wouldn’t impact the creative control he had over his music—“(Major labels are) actually comprised of individuals who are real people, and there’s a part of them that feels like part of their job is to put out good music.”

The label, at least in the early days of Smith’s time with them, was incredibly supportive.

As a collection of songs, XO is at times, incredibly angry, as well as pensive and regretful—at times, all of those emotions and more wind up converging in the same song. There are moments that recall Smiths’ earlier material—even with this larger budget to work with, the hushed, spidery thin, and double-tracked vocals are still ever present, and there are a number of songs throughout XO that do not stray very far from Smith’s humble acoustic beginnings, like the jaunty strumming and plucking of “Tomorrow Tomorrow,” the melancholic ruminations of “Pitseleh,” and the relatively simple arrangement that begins the stunning, “Oh Well, Okay,” before it ascends into its sweeping string section accompaniment.

Smith’s songs were almost always pensive and regretful, and often times about substance abuse—though he claimed he was using the imagery of addiction as a metaphor (at least early on), the anger, or at least the resentment, in such a blatant form and direct form. That, for the most part, stems from the growing concern his circle of friends voiced regarding his descent into alcoholism—you can hear it boiling over near the record’s end on “Everybody Cares, Everybody Understands”: “You think you mean well, you don’t know what you mean,” he snarls. “Fucking ought to stay the hell away from things you know nothing about.”

There is a lot to unpack on both XO’s finest, and most famous moments—returning to the bright sounding, full orchestrated palate that he used on “Miss Misery,” “Waltz #2 (XO)” dives head-first into the deep end of his tumultuous relationship with his mother and step-father. Set to the tempo of a fast waltz (he’s not kidding about that part of the tile), Smith piles on the layers of instrumentation—first the acoustic guitar, then electric, then a barroom style piano, then the grandeur of a string section—as he references “Cathy’s Clown” and “You’re No Good,” alludes to the sexual abuse he faced from his step-father, and in the end, concedes with one of the album’s most enduring lyrics—“I’m never going to know you know, but I’m going to love you anyhow.”

One of XO’s finest moments, or at least its most haunting, is not so much an inverse of “Waltz #2,” but it, too, is a waltz—aptly titled “Waltz #1” with nothing parenthetical included. Sequenced after the halfway mark on the record, it opens up side two if you’re listening to XO on LP—and I truthfully couldn’t think of a better way to open up the latter half of the album.

A swirling and dreamy blend of vibraphone (courtesy of collaborator Jon Brion, whose kaleidoscopic, whimsical aesthetic had a huge impact on Smith’s Dreamworks-era sound) electric guitar, piano, minor percussion, and lush strings, “Waltz #1” is a slow, sad waltz—with Smith’s fragmented, vivid lyrics rising and falling with the music, as he paints a picture of his inability to cease rumination on a failed relationship. The instrumentation, as well as the sheer anguish in Smith’s voice, works together to create what is, without a doubt, one of the most impressive and captivating tracks on XO, as well as in Smith’s canon—and it’s home to what is one of the album’s most brutal lyrics: “Now I never leave my zone, we’re both alone, I’m going homeI wish I’d never seen your face.” The way he holds, and allows his voice to both break and stop for breaths on “face,” is almost just too much—it’s too devastating to hear, but you also never want it to end.

The other high water mark on XO arrives at the very end—serving as a sort of epilogue or afterward to the vitriol of “Everybody Cares, Everybody Understands,” the mesmerizing, “I Didn’t Understand,” finds Smith, whether he knew it or not at the time, flexing his arranging and vocal prowess. “I Didn’t Understand” is barely over two minutes in length, but the rollercoaster of emotions that Smith manages to pack into those two minutes is astounding. An a capella track, structured around Smith’s multi-tracked and layered voice, wordlessly singing the melody, he then later overlays himself quietly delivering the song’s devastating lyrics.

Originally called “Watch The World Collide,” and written with a slightly different set of lyrics, here, in the final iteration, he ruminates on what appears to be the aftermath of a messy, messy break up—

…And so you’d soon be leaving me alone, like I’m supposed to be tonight, tomorrow, and everyday. There’s nothing here that you’ll miss, I can guarantee you this—Is a cloud of smoke trying to occupy space? What a fucking joke…I waited for a bus to separate the both of us, and take me off, far away from you. ‘Cause my feelings never change a bit—I always feel like shit. I don’t know why, I guess that I ‘just do.’

It’s a bit audacious to conclude XO with something so emotionally raw, yet arranged so beautifully and labored over; and following the bombastic way that “Everybody Cares” ends, it, by comparison, seems a little understated—though it really isn’t.

There are some parts of XO that never really worked, or didn’t work as well. The more ‘rock’ oriented songs are the weakest parts—the trudging “Amity” is a song that I always skip over—and it’s a shame it arrives right after the beauty and pain of “Waltz #1.” And songs “Bled White” and “Bottle Up and Explode!” are pretty similar in structure, or at least tone, if you think about it—they are both jaunty and excited, anchored by catchy refrains.

It isn’t a perfect album—it wasn’t 20 years ago, and it’s not today. I’ve never felt that it was, and in truth, both XO and its predecessor, Figure 8, were the albums that took me the longest to warm up to, based on the sharp contrast in production aesthetics when compared to the lo-fi, indie folk trappings of his Kill Rock Stars beginnings.

It’s a bit surreal to think about how I am older now than Smith was when he passed away in 2003; it’s also surreal to think about how fast his descent came following the release of XO.

After working on Figure 8, Smith, according to his Wikipedia entry, became addicted to heroin, and his self-destructive behavior began to spiral out of control. He became paranoid, believing a white van was following him around, and when heading to the recording studio to begin work on his next album, he asked to be dropped off miles away, where he would traverse through brush and cliffs to get there. He also believed people from Dreamworks were out to get him, stealing laptop computers from his home.

In 2001, he began working with longtime collaborator Jon Brion, but when Brion confronted Smith about his condition, the two had a falling out; Brion sent Dreamworks a bill for his time, and the label tried to figure out what to do with their tortured, drug addled artist who was, apparently, using $1,500 worth of heroin and crack a day, often threatening suicide, and actively trying to overdose.

In 2002, Smith played some very ill-fated concerts where he could barely keep it together on stage—forgetting words and unable to play his guitar. A review of one of these shows from an online publication stated they wouldn’t be surprised if Smith was dead within a year; the sad thing is, is that he was, but not from substance abuse. In 2003, Smith miraculously cleaned up, began working slowly on From a Basement on the Hill, and played a handful of well received ‘comeback’ shows.

On October 21st, 2003, only a tumultuous five years after the release of XO, Smith was found with stab wounds—and later died at the hospital. His girlfriend at the time, Jennifer Chiba, was in the house when it happened, though in the shower—coming out of the bathroom after hearing him scream. Reported as a suicide, there’s always been a lingering question over the last 15 years if that really was the case.

Like so many other moderately distressed singer/songwriters before him, Elliott Smith has become a ‘legacy’ artist—he released his first solo album, Roman Candle, in 1994, and his final studio album, From a Basement on the Hill was issued posthumously in October of 2004. He’s been deceased for longer than he was an active recording artist—yet his music, and what it means to others, lives on.

His self-titled album, and Either/Or, may be easier to access, and may be more direct, for those looking for the kind of ‘wounded heart on sleeve,’ visceral yet delicate indie folk that is often associated with Elliott Smith—however, if you look at those first three albums as being recorded in black and white, the importance of his colorized catalog shouldn’t be overlooked. There are some really poignant, shattering moments on XO—many of them are just dressed up thanks to a major label budget.

XO isn’t Smith’s crowning achievement, though it comes pretty close, and it shows how a moderately humble songwriter can find the places where stark honesty fits on a gigantic musical canvas, and still make those songs resonate deeply.

As a bit of a Post Script—in 2007, Kill Rock Stars cancelled plans for a 10th anniversary reissue of Either/Or, and a number of unreleased songs from those sessions wound up on the double LP, New Moon—an uneven at times, though fulfilling, collection of odds and ends from Smith’s short career. For Smith’s 40th birthday, the label digitally issued a small handful of alternate takes of songs from Either/Or, so that, in 2017, when the album celebrated it’s 20th anniversary, they had little ‘bonus material’ to choose from for the reissue they assembled.

There are a number of well-known and widely bootlegged alternate versions of the songs from the XO sessions, but to my knowledge, Universal Music, the company that absorbed Dreamworks, has no plans to reissue this album in celebration of its 20th anniversary. Originally released on vinyl in 1998 by independent label Bong Load, XO has been repressed a number of times, all to what could be called diminishing returns—in 2012, it was issued by ‘Plain Recordings,’ a notorious imprint known for its poor quality pressings; in 2016, Bong Load reissued it on colored vinyl; and in 2017, Geffen repressed it, this time with a Parental Advisory graphic on the front cover to alert people to the small amount of profanity found within.

I bought the Plain Recordings repressing without knowing about the quality issues, and while it sounds a little flat in the way it was mastered, it’s not nearly as unlistenable as some audiophiles on Discogs claim it is, though I will agree that XO is the kind of important record that deserves a real remastering and reissuing. Whatever version you happen to find—the CD, mp3s from iTunes, a vinyl repressing of questionable quality—its an important album representing a time of drastic change and growth in an artist’s career.