Hour to hour, note to note
By the time I listened to Elliott Smith's XO, the man who had recommended it to me was dead. He was a friend of my mother's, and I regarded him with the same mistrust that a teenager feels for anyone who tries to bond with them. It's not that I suspected Brian wasn't trustworthy. It's just that I hated myself so much that I didn't give much credit to the idea that someone could want my company. Nonetheless, Brian continued to hire me as a babysitter, and to burn me white CDs labeled in neat black Sharpie, until his shocking and untimely death (his heart, I think) at the age of about fifty. I remember that I did try PJ Harvey's Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea, but I never put on XO, Smith's perfect 1998 album about radiance and death in Portland, Oregon. When I finally did, I could thank Brian neither for the CD nor for his kindness.
All of this is melancholy, of course, but not quite XO's brand of melancholy. The album is vital, electric, alive, and all the more because Smith spends it longing for death. His is a vengeful suicidality, the kind that reminds me of one of my favorite lines from Le Guin, "It's all the rest of us who are killed by the suicide": by rolling down the shutters on the world, you get rid of us all. And yet his album doesn't feel belligerent, either. It's lightning, not fire. We can say that this is because it's a heroin album, but it's also the work of an artist at the top of his craft, and all of it is on purpose.
XO contains chords so beautiful that it makes no sense that they are produced only by a guitar. It doesn't seem possible that something so whole could come out of one instrument. And it is astonishing that this beauty is assigned to songs that are, in essence, about how Smith refuses to change his life. I'm past the age of thinking that self-destruction is romantic, and I know Brian was. Smith was too, though. When he sings (to a track somehow both tense and drawling, knowing exactly how to move you forward), "You say you mean well/you don't know what you mean/fucking ought to stay the hell away from things you know nothing about," he doesn't think that's romantic. He doesn't think it's anything. He is stating a fact. His self-destruction is the theme that came to hand the day he attained mastery.
Regarding "fucking ought to stay the hell away": XO is also an incredibly profane album, not obscene but profane, as in the flip side of sacred. The trick is easy – say "shit" and "fuck" a lot in a sweet, whispery voice – but, in Smith's mouth, powerful. XO is lyrically rich, but its sentences are simple. It deals in the shortest line between two points. Very often, the gate that closes that circuit is something abrupt and four-letter. Smith saves the maximalism for his arrangements, which are complex but don't sound that way; those moments I mentioned before, when the guitar plays alone, are the exceptions, and they're largely present to symbolize simplicity without requiring the sound to be simple. The lyrics sound more complicated than they are, and the instruments sound simpler than they are, and the juxtaposition is tenser than it sounds.
Is it weird to say that I don't like any of Smith's other albums? I've rarely gotten much distance into any of them without deciding to just listen to XO again. It's possible that I'll come around to them, or that this reflects the one moment where his impulses came together in a way that suited me perfectly, but really, I think it's just that I'm not over this one yet. I'm still finding new things. I spent way too much of my youth reading Nick Hornby, and though I no longer set much stock by his opinions, he's still on to something with the idea that your brain can "solve" a piece of music and then be done with it afterward. Sometimes my brain thinks it's solved XO, and then a few years go by, I get more insight into music and people, and then I'm in a whole new world of pain.
Smith is narratively dead by the end of XO, though in fact he survived it by five years. (As an aside, I'm normally a partisan for the idea that we shouldn't assume a singer's lyrics are autobiographical, but in this case it seems ridiculous to pretend otherwise.) In the final track, "I Didn't Understand," he is backed by an a capella arrangement of his own multitracked voice, sounding as unnervingly angelic as he ever does, and narrating, "There's nothing here that you'll miss/I can guarantee you this/is a cloud of smoke/trying to occupy space/what a fucking joke." There's something eerie in the way he carries over what seems to be the end of the sentence ("I can guarantee you this") into something more ("...is a cloud of smoke") – lyrically taking himself from an "I" to a "this," an "it," in an instant. By the end of the song, Smith is speaking in the past tense: "I could have gone to that place, but I didn't understand, I didn't understand, I didn't understand." XO is a voice from beyond the grave. It's a dead man's record.