Rantings, reviews and lists from a person who structures half his life around obsessing over music.

Saturday, September 3, 2005

Elliott Smith - XO (1998)

4.0 ★/8.0 - 8.9

In Elliott Smith’s prior 4 years of making music, on small-time indie label, Kill Rock Stars, I don't think anyone could have guessed that he’d ever be signed onto a major label. Sure, his first three full-length acoustic based lo-fi albums garnered great critical acclaim, but it was mainly by indie snobs and obscure record collectors - both of whose opinions the public rarely take to heart. It should have been Smith’s Oscar nomination for his bittersweet ballad from Gus Van Sant’s Good Will Hunting, "Miss Misery", that foreshadowed possible major-label interest in the northwestern 60s pop revivalist. Sure enough, in less than a year, Smith found himself on DreamWorks Records, spending massive amounts of time and money in the studio preparing his 4th album and major label debut, XO.

The change in sound is apparent from the opener, "Sweet Adeline" which suddenly moves from a confessional George Harrison-esque melody to a swirling vortex of piano, organ and strings. Charming piano fills and flawless production litter the album, peppering each song with a new found accessibility and maturity that Smith only hinted at before. Smiths’ songs have always been well structured, but their true potential was somewhat jaded by the relatively limited abilities of the Lo-fi aesthetic. Free from those constraints, he has space to be creative. There’s so much more to his mind than standard acoustic guitars with occasional light percussion and he proves himself to be perfectly capable of taking his catchy melodies into the more professional sect of compositions. It's an improvement that the songs vary more drastically in sound than his previous efforts, from the acoustic personal pondering of "Oh Well, Okay" and "Pitseleh" to the bouncy piano based pop of "Baby Britain". And the fully formed multi-tracked layers of melancholy guitars and intensive finger-picking are what makes "Tomorrow Tomorrow" his most realized song to date. Meanwhile, the use of multiple vocal tracks and organs make Smith’s soft voice sound even more fragile (best heard on the utterly ethereal "Waltz #1", as well as the album closer, "I Didn’t Understand", which is a heartbreaking dirge performed in a capella style). Calling these songs confessionals is an understatement. Elliott practically inspires discomfort with his starkness, yet another of his strong points amplified by the major studio.

Still, it's not exactly an irrational fear that the underground might lose one of it's most valuable songwriters to the demon of major-label influence, which often prioritizes profits and popular demand over artistic vision and quality. All the indie snobs who may have cried “sell out” at the prospect of Elliott going onto bigger things, did so knowing the past examples of bands losing their integrity to the prospects of big bucks. Yet, despite the noticeable changes and tendency to drag with boring post-grunge rockers like "Amity" and "A Question Mark", XO is still clearly Elliott’s album at heart and, in addition to becoming an excellent addition to his output of consistently great albums, easily dispels all possible notions of his creativity stagnating.

No comments:

"How many times must a man look up
before he can see the sky?"