Released August 25th, 1998, ‘XO‘ was the first Elliott Smith album released on DreamWorks. It acted as a huge stepping stone in his success as an artist. In making the change to a major record label, Smith still managed to stay true. He kept the emotionally vulnerable and real sound that he was most known for. Described as a “transformational landmark” in Pitchfork, ‘XO‘ showcases some of his best and most influential work.
A Newfound Success
At the time Smith had gained a bigger following while ‘XO‘ was still in production. Furthermore, many of his songs were featured in Gus Van Sant’s 1997 film, Good Will Hunting. As a result of this, he wrote ‘Miss Misery’ specifically for the film. Nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Song, it lost out to Céline Dion’s ‘My Heart Will Go On‘.
Bringing Elliott’s sound would be a perfect decision, with Van Sant introducing his music to the film’s producer, Lawrence Bender. Ultimately, Bender describes it as having “this melancholic beautiful sound to it.” Thus, it transformed the film’s soundtrack into what it is today.
Previously part of the band Heatmiser, Elliott had experience with a major label. The band was signed to Virgin but split before their third album ‘Mic City Sons’ was released. Smith was brought out by DreamWorks, subsequently giving him a whole new platform to share his music. ‘XO‘ allowed him to move in a slightly different direction to his usual hushed sound. Now with the backing, he took the opportunity to play around with strings and work a bit more electronically.
Moving Into a New Sound
Stepping into a new style of songwriting, this proved to work in his favour. Again keeping in line with his homegrown and personal way of creating his music, Smith took on most of the album’s instrumentals himself. He brought a remarkable talent for storytelling and a new sound reminiscent of The Beatles on tracks like ‘Baby Britain’.
It is a project focusing on the memories you have from growing up and the untimely demise of a deteriorating relationship. ‘XO‘ is especially harrowing knowing the personal experiences of Elliott’s life. At the time of singing to DreamWorks, he attempted to take his own life. Illustrated in his music, Smith was dealing with repressed memories from childhood and his struggles with alcoholism.
Meanwhile working on a new sound, some of his more vulnerable and sentimental work is now accompanied by a somewhat happy backing track. As a result, we see further into the human ways in which we deal with our lurking issues. Alternatively, we weren’t just an ear up to the closed door of his mind, listening with almost a fear of moving and interrupting his innermost workings. Simultaneously, it hit head-on with an in-your-face openness. The music almost confessed that he too can deal with his issues with humour and fondness of the things that keep him afloat.
The opening track ‘Sweet Adeline’ is hard-hitting, inspired by the memories he had of his grandmother’s musical talent. Likewise, it starts with that comfortable familiarity of his previous music. However, as the song drops there is a new lease of life within this newly explored sound. Something so unexpected but so well received, Smith had revealed a whole new side of himself and his talents. The song is a perfect opening to the LP and into this new take on unguardedness, his sound was complete.
The Influence of ‘XO‘
For any indie music fan, Elliott Smith is somewhat of a household name. The legacy ‘XO‘ left behind is one that captures the intensity of Smith’s struggles in life. Although fitted with heavier and more experimental sounds different from his previous works, it stays true to his core of writing in uncommon, brutal honesty.
He inspired many artists around the world, one considerably major influence he had was on artist Phoebe Bridgers. Clear to all fans, Bridgers holds Smith in the highest regard. In addition, she wrote songs not only inspired by, but about him. The title track from her second album ‘Punisher‘ is written about the late singer. She describes ‘Waltz #2’ as her favourite Elliott Smith song as it “exemplifies his writing.”
A Signing Off
Universally known, ‘XO‘ is a way of signing off any personal and heartfelt message. To Elliott, these two letters could represent signing off not only to the person on the other end of the failed relationship but to yourself. It is a goodbye to the person you once were.
‘XO‘ was a defining moment in Smith’s admirable career. 25 years on it remains an album of wit and melancholic goodbyes. Something so true to everything Elliott Smith was.