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From His Bedroom to The Oscars - 'XO' and Elliott Smith's Everlasting Legacy

It's March 1998 and Elliott Smith stepped out onstage on the Shrine Auditorium where the Academy Awards were being held that year. The orchestra had already begun playing as Smith - white suit, mess hair and armed with an acoustic guitar - stood center stage, eyes downcast and sang an abbreviated version of 'Miss Misery'. his voice, always soft and whispery, started out radiating nevers, but he gained a bit of confidence as he went, as the orchestral embellishments which sounded nothing like Smith's original pushed him forward. His song was nominated for the Best Music, Original Song, presented by Madonna no less, but moments after his final strum, the orchestra's tin-whistle flute drew a line between his performance and the opening intro to Celine Dion's 'My Heart Will Go On', the song that was always fated to win the award, as dry ice clouded the stage. And then, Elliott Smith, Celine Dion and Trisha Yearwood (also up for the award with 'How Do I Live' from Con Air) linked hands and took a bow. It was Smith's first foray into that epic world and he did it all in front of Jack Nicholson, James Cameron, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Aaliyah, Denzel Washington and about 57 million others.

He was 29 at the time, but that was the '90's, and he had spent most of the decade in Portland, taking odd jobs for cash and gigging with indie rock band Heatmiser. They'd found themselves a decent-ish audience, but Smith had also been creating quiet and beautifully fragile acoustic music on his own. By 1997, Smith had built up a reverent albeit rapturous cult fanbase and released three solo albums on indie label Kill Rock Stars. Fellow fringey artist and indie film hero Gus Van Sant had taken notice and had recently jumped aboard to direct Good Will Hunting, a movie written by some upstart actors Ben Affleck and Matt Damon. The movie was, of course, enormously popular yada, yada, yada and provided a small rare moment of mainstream recognition fro Van Sant, our hero here because he'd asked Smith to contribute a few songs to that film's soundtrack.

Following that awards show performance, Elliott Smith signed to a major label, DreamWorks, the imprint started by David Geffen, Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg as a subsidiary to DreamWorks Pictures with a roster that had already signed Rufus Wainwright, Eels, Nelly Furtado, George Michael and Henry Rollins. It had to happen. You couldn’t perform at the Titanic Oscars and keep putting out quiet records on Kill Rock Stars. That kind of thing just didn’t happen in the ’90s.

Smith’s music had already been layering guitars, adding a little piano and evolving his sound from the scratchy and lo-fi four-track recordings of his 1994 debut Roman Candle. But on XO, his songcraft exploded and went to the next level. Working alongside Beck collaborators and co-producers Rob Schnapf and Tom Rothrock as he had done on his previous album Either/Or, Smith eyed inspiration from the lush singer-songwriter types of the 1970's and built an orchestral pop masterwork. His music was suddenly bursting with colour and melody with instrumentation that boasted electric pianos, mandolins, melodicas, horns, strings, Chamberlins, multi-tracked backing vocals, a massive leap into some idea of pop music from an artist who had always been entirely inwardly-directed. Fans who might have initially been concerned that corporate megabucks would throw their favourite hushed singer off course, had absolutely nothing to worry about.

Of course, he could cram all these new sounds onto XO all he liked, but he couldn’t change his own delicate voice and the undeniable fact that he was still a painfully intimate songwriter clearly going through some shit. Around the same time he signed to Dreamworks, Smith attempted suicide, drunkenly leaping off a cliff in North Carolina. He'd been some serious demons, dealing with alcoholism and with the painful repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse. Aesthetically, XO is a work of deep and nurturing beauty. Lyrically, it is raw and wounded to a startling degree. There are moments of depression and desperation on XO that will spin your head over almost 25 years later, especially when you consider Smith’s ultimate fate.

The opening 'Sweet Adeline' is a beautiful example, opening with bouncy acoustic before bursting into full bloom with pianos, guitars and big backing vocals. It's so evocative, it might remind you of the moment in The Wizard Of Oz when black and white unexpectedly flips to colour.

The relationships are fraught and dysfunctional on the likes of 'Bottle Up And Explode' and drunkenly commiserating on 'Baby Britain'. 'Amity' is an outlier, more of a charged-up rocker and fueled by excitement while 'Waltz #2 (XO)' is arguably the greatest song Smith ever wrote and is a stunning yet harrowing tale about his own mother who folded inward completely to survive an abusive and neglectful relationship. The closing 'I Didn't Understand' beatifically and unsurprisingly does the alchemical work of transforming ugly sentiment into shattering beauty.

The beauty and the depression would both grow — Smith’s next album, his final completed one, was 2000’s Figure 8, a work of dizzily lush power-pop that's sonic worlds away from his indie work. Smith got himself hooked on heroin around the same time, and his paranoiac and self-destructive tendencies got worse. And in 2003, five years after releasing XO, Smith died from two stab wounds to the chest — presumably a suicide, though there are still questions.

Elliott Smith made five albums in his tragically short life, and they’re all staggeringly beautiful in some way or another. XO is, perhaps, the transitional album, the moment where he was switching over from being the unknown and self-reflective, indie acoustic artist to a full-on studio-pop auteur. It's warm, intuitive, fully-formed, created with stunning clarity and the sound of a clearly profound musician taking full advantage of his resources as soon as they were made available to him.






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