Alex Koenig found the needle in the haystack.
On Oscar night 1998, Elliott Smith graced the stage in a crisp white tuxedo to perform “Miss Misery,” a tender ballad written for Gus Van Sant’s coming-of-age film Good Will Hunting. Nearly 40 million home viewers fixated on a performer who a little over a year prior was recording his album, Either/Or, in various dank Portland home studios. Whether he intended to or not, the shy, wispy-voiced kid had moved from the grotto to the grand stage. “I wouldn’t want to live in that world,” Smith said after his performance. “But it was fun to walk around on the moon for a day.”
Major labels turned their eyes to Smith, and not long after, Smith made XO, his debut with DreamWorks. Smith took advantage of his new financial opportunity to engage the creative process with widescreen lens. The production on the LP was a leap in fidelity compared to his lo-fi releases on indie label Kill Rock Stars. Smith’s more mainstream-oriented sound open the doors to late night TV appearances and a positive public profile. Things looked promising.
YetSmith’s depression remained the cornerstone of his career and the downfall of his personal life. Even more unsettling was Smith’s pithy responses to deeply concerned friends. “Yeah, I jumped off a cliff, but let’s talk about something else,” he told an interviewer after being questioned about a 1997 suicide attempt. That one of Smith’s most fertile creative periods came amongst personal despondency prompts a question that applies even fifteen years later: are sad songwriters are less effective if stripped from their sadness?
Still, Smith was too gifted to evoke only pain in his music. Romance, even more so than sadness, shined through in XO. The album possesses crestfallen phrases you’d whisper to your lover, kindled by dim candlelight. Nowhere is this more apparent than the fifth song “Pitseleh,” which means “little one” in Yiddish. The image of a fragile man wrought with holes is quietly devastating: “Silent kid is looking down the barrel / to make the noise that I kept so quiet / kept it from you, pitseleh.”
Fifteen years after its initial release – and ten years after Smith’s passing — XO serves as a case study of an enigma. Sure, there are theories of “Waltz #2” being a cold recollection of family trauma, and “Everybody Cares, Everybody Understands” certainly harkens to an ill-fated intervention conducted by his friends. Still, within XO, where was the line drawn between Smith’s fantasy and reality, between figurative poetry and on-the-nose indictments?
While those questions may be open-ended, the quality of the songs are worthy of canonization. You may say it’s absurd, but for my money Elliott Smith was the closest songwriter to bear the Beatles’ torch. Everything from the punchy guitar strokes that propelled “Baby Britain” to the gleaming string section that pulled the cork off “Bottle Up and Explode” lived up to the Fab Four’s pop sensibility. Which brings us to the album’s lone caveats: there are no ahead-of-their time innovations on XO, and Smith’s other influences – Big Star, The Kinks, Neil Young– echo though every chord change. But Smith was a revisionist rather than revivalist. He acquired inspiration from music he loved and weaved it into his own story.
The reign of XO lies in the inspired modern songwriters who believe that poignancy possesses power. Father, Son, Holy Ghost, the 2011 LP by Girls, featured frontman Christopher Owens reviving Smith’s waifish vocal tone. This year’s Sleeper by Ty Segall has the potential to be sea change for Bay Area psych-rock, and its strength lay in Segall’s ability to blossom personal demons into unadorned beauty. But none of these efforts, however commendable, have been able to pull heartstrings quite like Mr. Misery. Elliott Smith may have felt cursed by the ephemeral nature of love, but his greatest testament to it will never fade.