‘XO’: Elliott Smith’s Glorious, Devastating Fourth Album

Moving closer to the mainstream with ‘XO’, Elliott Smith reveled in all he could master while making his deeply personal songs resonate even further.

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Cover: Courtesy of Universal Music

Having earned himself a cult following with indie LPs Roman Candle, Elliott Smith and Either/Or, the hugely talented multi-instrumentalist Elliott Smith gained worldwide attention after several of his tracks featured on the soundtrack to the Oscar-winning 1997 movie Good Will Hunting. Indeed, Smith earned himself a nomination for Best Original Song with “Miss Misery.” Though he ultimately lost out to the juggernaut that was Titanic’s “My Heart Will Go On,” Smith was thrust into the spotlight to perform his track live at the awards ceremony – and things were never quite the same again. DreamWorks managed to woo Smith away from Kill Rock Stars for his fourth outing, XO, released on August 25, 1998, to a shower of critical praise. And while fans might initially have fretted that corporate megabucks would throw Smith off course, they had nothing to worry about.

Listen to the deluxe edition of XO.

That’s not to say he didn’t take full advantage of an increased budget. Opener “Sweet Adeline” appears to set the scene with Smith’s trademark acoustic guitar and intimately recorded vocals, but then the drums, piano, and multi-tracked vocals cascade down, imbued with Smith’s innate knack for a Beatles melody, couching barbed lyrics in arrangements that are subtly yet undeniably effective. And if the likes of “Amity” fizzes with distortion, recalling Smith’s early days as part of Portland punk outfit Heatmiser, “Bottle Up And Explode!” sees him tap into Big Star power-pop with added strings.

Two waltzes, “Waltz #1” and “Waltz #2 (XO),” catch Smith at his most graceful: deceptively simple instrumentation and, in the case of the latter, boasting devastating lyrics that manage to encapsulate small-down ambitions, dashed hopes and an expression of isolation that’s at once heartbreaking and utterly relatable. Smith’s creative process at this time is explored on the soundtrack to the acclaimed documentary Heaven Adores You, with a work-in-progress version of “Waltz #1.” A testament to the strength of Smith’s vision, it shows the song arriving more or less fully-formed.

Waltz #1 (Demo Version)

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At just 44 minutes, the album feels like it contains a lifetime of experience, as if, despite his indie beginnings, Smith had been working towards this moment all his life. Bong Load label co-founders Tom Rothrock and Rob Schnapf do a masterful job of allowing the arrangements to sound full without sacrificing any of Smith’s intimacy. The results are at once glorious and devastating, catching Smith as he revels in all that he could master, while making his deeply personal songs resonate with his widest audience yet.

Looking for more? Discover the best Elliott Smith songs.

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