A few months ago now, Elliott Smith played an extremely sold-out show at Bottom of the Hill. He'd performed at the club before, both on his own and with his former band Heatmiser. He'd also opened at the Fillmore and done a co-op party in Berkeley. But this appearance was different. There was something, some projection of import, that the others didn't have.
Smith is a scruffy, pockmarked rail of a boy. As he'd done each time before, he sat down in a chair in the center of the stage and began to pluck beautiful melodies on his acoustic guitar. His frail, wispy voice sighed the lyrics. As the songs bloomed, each one as lovely as the one before, delicate and color-saturated like wildflowers, the crowd craned forward, attentive to each syllable. It was more than a rock show, more than a bunch of scenesters posturing in a dark club. Smith had silenced the audience by merely walking onstage; people were holding their breath while he tuned his guitar.
All this for a greasy-haired guy -- from Portland, now New York -- who never changes his shirt. But it was thrilling. Smith matters to people. More importantly, he matters to individuals. His songs, crafted and perspicacious, tell stories about characters -- including himself -- who fall in love, break up tragically, "drag the sunset down," wander alone at night. Most of the writing favors the second person; when Smith sings, he's singing to you. When he's not, he's using first person, the lyrics setting scenes just detailed enough for the listener to paint him- or herself into the portrait. It's a precise, solitary, and individualistic experience listening to Elliott Smith, live, on three independent solo records, and on XO, his major-label debut.
Let the hippies and the ravers have that thing they call community. Let rock 'n' roll keep pretending to offer collective experience -- on the radio and video waves and at concerts. Smith makes internal chamber music, songs for headphones and aloneness. It's not an original approach, of course; you could make the argument that James Taylor, who'd spent time in mental institutions and like Smith was a one-time heroin addict, created the genre before he became a joke. But Smith has a more desperate, even more isolating, approach to the form. "Fire and Rain," not exactly a cheery song, still works fine on a campfire acoustic sing-along -- sunny days and lonely times and all. (The song is actually on a 1994 James Taylor karaoke disc.) Try getting everyone to harmonize "High on amphetamines" from Smith's "St. Ides Heaven."
On XO, as before, Smith sings about three subjects: relationships, usually after they've disintegrated; other people, cocked portraits of friends and lovers; and loneliness and alienation, mostly expressed through drug use or alcohol abuse and simple expressionistic poetry. "I'm a color reporter/ But the city's been bled white," sings Smith at the beginning of "Bled White."
There's a lushness to XO; the instrumentation is thicker than on past records, dense with strings and piano but never cluttered; there's a courtly, formal feel to it. The sonic philosophy is summed up in a couple of lines from "Baby Britain": "Revolver's been turned over/ And now it's ready once again." Pet Sounds and its bittersweet melodies have been turned over as well.
Smith will probably never make a record as bleak, as touchingly lunar -- desolate -- as his self-titled second record. Like the inverse of dour British folkie Nick Drake, Smith is progressing from spare acoustic pieces to intricately orchestrated songs -- from Pink Moon to Five Leaves Left, you might say. Elliott Smith told simpler stories, often layered with meaning that could be peeled back like a tangerine, revealing a thin, clingy membrane of poignancy, a web of words and ideas.
The individual songs on XO are less cohesive. The narratives are more like pastiches, little moments strung together, multiple songs rolled into one. The first two stanzas of "Waltz #2 (XO)" set a scene in a karaoke bar with a woman at the mike singing the Everly Brothers' "Cathy's Clown": "She shows no emotion at all/ Stares into space like a dead China doll." By the third stanza all the emphasis is on the detached, alienated narrator, who's tired, "looking out on the substitute scene." The connection between the settings isn't clear. In the first, Smith's drawing a portrait. In the second, he's awkward, confessional, aching for a place where "he has what it takes." But the discrepancy doesn't damage the song. Both parts are luminescent, clear in their emotions. The chorus, "I'm never going to know you now/ But I'm going to love you anyhow," and the strings plummeting at the end of the tune collapse his voice into a heap. Rather than a story, he delivers a mood, a feeling. And that's exactly what Smith's after.
After a false-start preview copy that got mailed to reviewers, someone resequenced the album and added one new track, the wonderful "Independence Day." Whoever did it -- presumably Smith, but who knows -- salvaged the record by molding a random assortment of songs into a coherent linear progression. Now, the songs on XO work off one another. Tiny details get repeated; they echo from one track to the next. In "Sweet Adeline" the song's narrator is "fully loaded, deaf and dumb and done." In the following song, "Tomorrow Tomorrow," the same phrase pops up in a harsh, insular composition about songwriting.
A similar thing happens between the pop number "Bottle Up and Explode!" and the horn-driven rocker "A Question Mark." "The last time you cried/ Who'd you picture inside," he asks in the first. Then: "I don't have to make pretend the picture I'm in is totally clear/ You think all things have a way they ought to appear."
No one will ever call Elliott Smith the voice of a generation. Smith doesn't feel like part of a movement. He's sensitive like Rufus Wainwright and the guys he's being compared to, but he's no pop star. Watching him perform "Miss Misery" on the Academy Awards was like seeing your cousin singing to 70 million people. You wanted to pull for him, so surreally bowing in a line with Trisha Yearwood and Celine Dion.
Back at that Bottom of the Hill show, Smith sang a version of John Lennon's "Jealous Guy." In the only collective moment of the show, the audience whistled along with him. I've seen a lot of shows at Bottom of the Hill. I've never heard an audience whistle.
The best musicians inspire us, affect us in a way that empty pop doesn't. If pop culture is made to be thrown away, it is thrilling then to find someone worth salvaging, someone who makes you want to stand in the way of entropy. Again, Smith matters to people.
I have a friend who met a woman in an online chat room. In their first conversation they talked about Smith's Either/Or. They were mutually intrigued by one another and after a few conversations they decided to transfer the courtship into the physical world. They both lived in San Francisco and could have met anywhere, but the two agreed that there was a certain excitement and novelty to the anonymity they found online. They wanted romance, but something quiet, alone. Instead of meeting they decided to exchange letters. She left a missive for him in Little House on the Prairie in the stacks of the San Francisco State library. He replied with a note in a Simon Frith book. She left an Elliott Smith cassette for him on the tops of the law books.
After a month or so of the playful courtship they arranged to meet at Smith's first show at Bottom of the Hill. For one reason or another he couldn't make it. Eventually they did meet next to the Yerba Buena fountain. It didn't work out. The woman moved to Portland, and then New York. Right out of an Elliott Smith song. XO, the term "XO," is a goodbye. "Hugs and kisses." "See you later." "Sincerely.