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Elliott Smith really knows how to deflate a room. His Oscar night performance of “Miss Misery” may go down as one of indie-rock’s more celebrated testaments of commercial ambivalence, but it was also fairly typical for Smith. The first time I saw him play, opening up for pal Mary Lou Lord roughly three years ago, Smith’s very presence was so dour that the club’s bartenders saw fit to ask for quiet, even going so far as to gently place empty beer bottles into trash cans to cut down on clatter. The whole proceeding, pocked with awkward silences and stark confessions, was roughly as cheery as a night spent breaking up with the love of your life. By the time Smith had started to unravel his second or third song, the entire crowd was sitting on the sticky floor of the rock club, visibly bummed but thoroughly absorbed.
As far as knocking ’em on their asses goes, it was an interesting technique. While the residual effects of Kurt Cobain’s sexually tolerant, pro-girl reign of power is still paying decent returns to people like his widow and the Lilith maidens, who can more or less project femininity however they please, his unfunky white brothers still have some serious identity issues. It’s an ideal situation for Smith: Bad times are his forte, and if he’s going to be defined by anything, it’s his own limitations. “I’m doing just fine hour to hour, note to note,” he whimpers on “Waltz #2 (XO),” the first single and de facto title track from his major label debut, XO. “I’m never gonna know you now, but I’ll love you anyhow.”
Call him a weakling or just painfully self-aware, but the guy’s a chick magnet, and with XO, Smith proves that he’s more than capable of taking things to a higher level musically. Either/Or, Smith’s last solo release if you don’t count his Simon-and-Garfunkel role in Good Will Hunting, is a good record but sounds like a reasonably fleshed-out demo tape compared with XO. Smith’s songs still suggest he’s spent many half-drunk days in the company of Nick Drake and Chris Bell, but he’s got more range than either, and he’s only half as depressing.
Smith’s no longer a folkie, if he ever really was one. As a guitar player, he’s always been more of a noodler than a big strummer, laying down patchwork canvases of pretty little melodies that go all but unnoticed as you strain to hear him sing. But there’s a musicality in Smith’s playing that begs to be blown up, and on XO he reveals that his past tendencies toward sparseness obscured grander, Technicolor visions.
On songs like “A Question Mark,” Smith manages to put a respectable, pop-happy sheen on the post-punk his old band Heatmiser could never get quite right. It’s the kind of forthright, car-radio moment that Smith keeps at arm’s length almost everywhere else. Smith doesn’t write hooks. He writes melodies, enough in some songs to fill other artists’ entire albums, and then grafts his lyrics on top, which retain their quick-scribbled beauty as Smith sings them, half-whispering, half-rejoicing.
Like Paul Westerberg’s, Smith’s words are vivid not because he makes tons of sense but because he knows the power of a killer line, as in “Baby Britain” when he sings, “You got a look in your eye/When you’re saying goodbye/Like you wanna say hi.” Despite all of the instrumentation, Smith’s voice is indeed the prettiest thing here; if you white out the cussing, the album closer “I Didn’t Understand” would fit nicely on Pet Soundsand Smith sings it a cappella. He’s studied enough Beach Boys and Beatles to make high-density, string-laced music feel organic, but his songs are still busy enough that each song has my favorite little moments. That part in “Bottle Up and Explode” where Smith lets his voice go angel-like, just for a second, has been blowing between my ears for weeks.
XO comes across so confident and fully realized that it’s startling to hear how disconnected Smith is from its beauty. In “Bled White,” Smith calls himself a “color reporter” in a world full of pale grays, and like the great pop craftsmen he admires, Smith comes up with his best stuff by splashing paint onto that disappointment. But his lyrics suggest someone who’s maddeningly passive, as if he’s wary of approaching anything head on. On “Independence Day,” Smith observes from afar a friend who’s made all the same mistakes he’s made but can hardly bring himself to say anything about it; at song’s end, he tells the person they’ll talk tomorrow, which you get the feeling will never come. Smith sings about never leaving his “zone” on “Waltz #1,” and until he does, it’s a good bet that Smith will never totally benefit from the uplift that his music provides. But sometimes there’s nothing so comfortable as turning inward and tuning out, and it’s nice to know that there’s some power to be found in staying that way.CP