|About the Book|
Many albums could be cited to support the claim that great suffering yields great art. Elliott Smith’s XO should not be one of them. Smith’s 1998 major label debut defies the “tortured singer-songwriter” stereotype, and takes up this defiance as aMoreMany albums could be cited to support the claim that great suffering yields great art. Elliott Smith’s XO should not be one of them. Smith’s 1998 major label debut defies the “tortured singer-songwriter” stereotype, and takes up this defiance as a central theme. At a time when Smith was being groomed for a particular (and particularly condescending) brand of stardom, he produced a record that eviscerated one of the central assumptions of singer-songwriterdom: that pain is beautiful. Indeed, XO insists that romanticizing personal tragedy can only leave you “deaf and dumb and done.” And it backs up this claim with some of the most artful and intelligent music of its day.While these themes permeate XO, the record hardly registers like a thesis statement. XO is instinctive and organic, expressing an understanding not an agenda. The sad parts of XO are deeply sad, but their sorrow is uniquely thoughtful and self-aware. Smith does not construct a beautiful facsimile of his problems, but rather stares down their ramifications with unflinching honesty. The album’s title cleverly reflects one of its central concerns – the difference between how we present ourselves (a letter to mom saying “it’s ok, it’s alright, nothing’s wrong”) and the damage we do through such self-denial.Its simple lyrical phrasing and characteristically hesitant vocal delivery have led many to overlook how mean, witty and incisive XO is. It’s a record populated by people who are wasting away, wallowing in their difficulties and squandering their potential. “For someone half as smart / you’d be a work of art” makes for a catchy chorus, but it’s a hell of a nasty statement. No punches are pulled on XO, least of all those directed at Smith himself. In many ways, XO is social protest record in the tradition of Phil Ochs’ Pleasures of the Harbor- a long, hard and unsparing look around at a social scene and its self-delusions. And, like Pleasures of the Harbor, it is the product of an artist who could never quite shake off the stigma of his early work.Matthew LeMay writes an original take on a widely beloved album, steering clear of the sensationalist suicide angles that have dogged most analysis of Elliott Smiths extraordinary work.