Happy 20th Anniversary to Elliott Smith’s fourth studio album XO, originally released August 25, 1998.
Packed with fourteen equally divine songs, XO is Elliott Smith’s fourth studio album, and his first solo album released by a major label, DreamWorks. The Oscar nomination for “Miss Misery,” a song used in fellow Portlandian Gus van Sant’s film Good Will Hunting, garnered widespread popularity for Smith. But up until the 1997 Academy Awards, where Smith begrudgingly played a two-minute version of the track, his plaintive songwriting had long only been appreciated by the indie crowd.
XO was to be Smith’s entrance to mainstream music. The first single “Waltz #2 (XO)” is a gentle, wistful piano-backed track. A moderate commercial success, it found a home on college radio stations across the country. The chorus, “I’m never going to know you know / but I’m going to love you anyhow,” quickly initiated those new to Smith into his beautiful cult of sadness. The exhaustion of his depression is felt explicitly (“I'm here today and expected to stay / on and on and on”) and in the plodding dance of his first single.
Fans of Smith prior to XO could easily recognize his profound ability to balance dark lyrics with catchy, well-crafted pop. Despite a much larger budget than previous albums, XO never feels too slick. Smith dodges over-production by sticking to the sparse guitar aesthetic that originally defined his sound. Occasionally he’ll dip into a fuller sound, but it plays as earthy and lush, never synthetic.
Even when the tempo picks up, on the pop tracks like “Baby Britain” or “Bled White,” the topic is morose. Addiction, depression, unrequited love—all come up in Smith’s clever songs. “Independence Day” jangles along to a chorus of “oohs” and “aahs,” an upbeat treatment for a song about mortality.
Written in Portland, Oregon, sitting alone at a bar, Smith maintains his loner style on XO, while collaborating with seasoned Hollywood producers like Rob Schnapf and Tom Rothrock and numerous studio musicians. Songs like “Bottle Up and Explode!” and “Question Mark” are far beyond the “guy and guitar” format of early Smith albums, incorporating horns and strings for a much bigger sound.
In retrospect, XO has aged incredibly well. Singer-songwriters often have a timeless quality, and Smith is no exception. The angelic quality of his voice and deep pathos of his songwriting are captivating throughout, remarkably undiminished by industry meddling. When he sings, “now I never leave my zone” on “Waltz #1,” his consistency is a repainted as stasis, an inability to change both his destructive habits as well as his productive songwriting streak.
Perhaps the best way to make intensely brooding songs is to pair jaunty drumming. Maybe you need to be a precise, dulcet guitarist like Smith, adding flourish to your defeated cries. On the final track of XO, the bare, isolated “I Don’t Understand,” Smith forgoes all accompaniment. Harmonized vocals paint a soundscape behind Smith lamenting love lost. And when he whispers “Alone, like I’m supposed to be / tonight, tomorrow and everyday,” Smith captures a loneliness so earnest it’s almost too sad to listen.
Like many talented musicians whose careers have ended prematurely, Smith’s backstory only compounds the emotion felt in his music. The listener feels just as helpless. And even 20 years after its release, when hearing this album, so perfect and so sad, Smith’s pain is just as poignant today.