Elliott Smith, ‘XO’ (Dreamworks)
“Fuckin’ oughta stay the hell away from things you know nothing about,” Elliott Smith mutters at the climax of his first big-budget, major-label album, and a huge, exquisite arrangement with piano and strings suddenly blossoms from the depths of the mix to prove him wrong. XO is Smith’s own emergence from underground-where he recorded some middling records with Heatmiser and three lovely, homemade indie-label solo albums-into universal, powerful work. His great subject is the quiet sadness people spend their lives trying to numb, and the best salve he knows is the straightforward, sweetly inescapable catchiness of Todd Rundgren and Carole King. Even though he’s a master melodist, he’s too modest to shove his tunes in your face; they just hang around like stray dogs shown kindness for the first time, and suddenly they’re there, lodged in permanent rotation on your mental jukebox.
Smith’s too smart and doubtful to be entirely comfortable in the spotlight, but he was terrific as the least pedigreed act to play the Oscars in recent memory (“Miss Misery,” from the Good Will Hunting soundtrack, was nominated for Best Song). And his self-recording apprenticeship prepared him for the confident, idiosyncratic, richly intimate sonics of XO-the arrangements perpetually dissolve and reintegrate in a way that could only be pulled off by somebody who used to have to do everything himself. (Smith played nearly everything on the album, and he even arranged the strings.)
This is his happiest sounding record to date, and his saddest; haunted and trembling beneath its composed surface of chiming guitars and soothing electric piano. He repeats phrases like they’re bad memories he can’t get out of his head, turning “deaf and dumb and done” in the first song into “deaf and dumb and dull” in the second, or accusing “you know, you know, you know” over the nervous boppiness of “A Question Mark.” XO ends with “I Didn’t Understand,” two minutes of creamy a cappella harmonies. “I always feel like shit / I don’t know why, I guess that I just do,” Smith coos. He’s not pitying himself, he’s not raging against the pain, he’s just sad, and he understates his ache to make it sweet.