"The songs have a vibe of, Get the f**k off me, and quit telling me what I should be doing": Why XO is the most perfect representation of Elliott Smith's brooding, beautiful genius

Elliott Smith
(Image credit: Andy Willsher/Redferns/Getty Images)

The 1990’s were a decade filled with cult artists, but not many can lay claim to capturing a fanbase as committed as Elliott Smith. In a period characterised by huge, larger-than-life personalities, Smith’s lo-fi indie folk stylings and his lack of interest in chasing the spotlight were a welcome antidote to the excess of the era. 

So idiosyncratic was he, that it seemed that you never met anyone who just 'liked' Elliott Smith, if they had heard of him, they adored and obsessed over him. Being able to command that kind of reaction, it was inevitable that major labels and mainstream outlets would eventually come looking for him. It was a situation that the notoriously troubled and doubt-filled musician really struggled with, but Smith’s first dalliance with the mainstream did lead to one of the finest albums of his career; 1998’s XO.

By the middle of 1997, Elliott Smith had become one of the coolest names to drop in the indie music scene. Formerly the frontman of Portland, Oregon indie-rock band Heatmiser, his excellent early solo albums, 1994’s Roman Candle and 1995’s Elliott Smith, had laid the groundwork for his, then, career best Either/Or album to really capture the imagination when it was released in February of that year. Still lo-fi and melancholic, the album was ever so slightly brighter in tone and found Smith really hitting his stride for crafting indie-pop nuggets wreathed in sadness. 

It resonated with its audience so much that director Gus Van Sant asked Smith if he could include songs from the album in the soundtrack to his 1997 film Good Will Hunting. Smith agreed and also recorded a brand-new song, Miss Misery, for inclusion in the movie.

Amazingly, after the huge success of the film, Smith found himself nominated for the Oscar for Best Original Song. For his fans, the sight of Smith walking out onto the stage of the 70th Annual Academy Awards on March 23 1998, dressed in a white suit, clutching his guitar and stripping the ceremony of all of its usual pomp and grandiosity as he performed the song live, felt like a fever dream. 

Smith felt similarly, initially rejecting requests to play the song at the ceremony, before relenting when he was informed by producers that if he were not to play it, they’d find someone else who would. Smith’s main memory of the performance was trying to look to the very back of the auditorium, due to the unsettling presence of Jack Nicholson six feet away from him in the front row: he told The Boston Globe in 1999, “I wouldn’t want to live in that world, but it was fun to walk around on the Moon for a day.” 

Smith, unsurprisingly, lost out on the award to Celine Dion’s Titanic mega-hit My Heart Will Go On, presented to the song's composers Will Jennings and James Horner on the night by Madonna. It’s hard to think of a situation less suited to Smith and his quiet, uncomplicated and introverted music (although, to Madonna’s credit, the fact she would go on to cover Between the Bars from Either/Or in 2017 and the smile that she tries to suppress as she reads out Smith’s name at the ceremony makes it quite clear who she would have wanted to pick up the award).

“He was never comfortable with his fame or with people appreciating what he did," Christopher Cooper, head of Cavity Search Records, the label that released Smith’s debut album told MTV. "Even when he was on television in front of a billion people at the Oscars, you could almost hear him shaking."

It was a rare sliver of positivity for Smith at this time. With a long history of mental health problems and struggles with addiction, Smith had garnered a reputation as a dark soul - in a nod to his Oscar-nominated song The Guardian christened him 'Mr Misery' - something he had actively been trying to rectify over the last few years, but, as his profile grew, so he began to sink back downwards. 

Firstly, his depression came back with a vengeance. After the release of Either/Or, and after months of openly threatening to end his life, friends had to stage an intervention to help a tormented Smith, after he admitted to feeling so hopeless that she would spend his time walking down subway tracks, with headphones on whilst staring at the floor. Touring the record in North Carolina, Smith leaped from a cliff and had his fall broken by a tree below him, later telling an interviewer who quizzed him on whether he had tried to commit suicide, “Yeah, I jumped off a cliff... but let’s talk about something else.”

When he eventually entered the studio to begin recording XO the drug habit that many friends thought he had kicked also returned. Smith had regularly been mixing anti-depressants with alcohol, but it was during this period that he graduated to harder drugs, something that would continue to plague him until the end of his life.

Despite all of this, with a deity-like reputation amongst his fans, and with his recent Oscars appearance still fresh in people’s minds, Smith was hot property, and was courted by major labels. He eventually signed to the new David Geffen-founded imprint DreamWorks Records, home to an eclectic roster including everyone from Papa Roach to George Michael, and given far more resources to craft his music.

Smith may have been deeply troubled, but he was committed to making the best album he could and spent the end of 1997 and the start of 1998 at Manhattan’s Luna Bar, where he would sit in solitary, writing ideas for the new album in his journal.

“I knew him as this very quiet guy that had discovered the bar and would stay there till closing or near closing most nights,” bar owner Rob Sacher told The Gothamist in 2004. “writing constantly in a journal with some kind of dark whiskey drink on the rocks, he always had some kind of bourbon or something like that. Week after week after week.”

XO was recorded over four studios in this period, with clear sonic and tonal changes from what Smith was more widely known for evident in the approach. Firstly, his trademark lo-fi style was deliberately broadened out into richer, fuller, baroque indie-pop and Beatles-esque moments; horns, strings, sax and greater orchestration were utilised. Secondly, although it would be inaccurate to call XO a happy album, it certainly has more moments of sweetness and positivity present; the opening song Sweet Adeline is inspired by recollections of Smith’s grandmother singing in a club when he was a child.

That said, when talking to NME ahead of the album's release, Smith described the record as "a lot more hostile" than Either/Or.

"More of the songs have a vibe of ‘Get the fuck off me, and quit telling me what I should be doing’," he said. “And there’s a repetitious theme of someone telling someone else what they should be doing, and how fucking insulting that is. I mean that makes me furious.”

Everything pointed towards XO being the moment where Elliott Smith became a household name. When the record was released on August 25 1998, however, it didn’t set the charts alight, reaching a meagre number 104 on the US Billboard 200, and the critical reaction was middling, Rolling Stone saying he “started out as just another muffled folkie, choking on his own self-pity, but he’s lightened up” and “he’s still a heartache looking for a place to happen” in their somewhat uncharitable three star review. But this is an album with a legacy that has only increased over the decades.

Going back to XO today, it’s clear that all of the adoration Elliott Smith inspired was fully deserved. As Sweet Adeline opens proceedings with its gorgeous George Harrison-esque melancholy, we’re immediately thrust into Smith’s new world of kaleidoscopic brightness partially obscured by the greyest of clouds. Baby Britain talks of “dead soldiers lined up on the table” but it still sounds gloriously sun kissed, the strings that elevate Smith on Bottle Up and Explode are heart-stopping and elegant, Amity has Smith’s most rocking guitar riff as he channels Neil Young and lead single Waltz #2 sways and shimmers like indie’s greatest ever lost hit single.

Like much of Smith’s material, the lyrics to that song hit particularly hard these days; “I’m never going to know you now, but I’m going to love you anyhow”. A line that the feelings of fans who have been turned onto Smith’s work in the aftermath of his tragic, confusing, passing in 2003, at the age of just 34, now reflect onto him. 

His demons may have cruelly robbed us of his talents, but it’s essential that we celebrate the legacy of one of indie’s most complex, fascinating, tragic and visionary artists. He may not have been cut out for superstardom, even if his music most certainly was, but XO is a treasure-trove of brilliance from a true cult artist.

Stephen Hill

Since blagging his way onto the Hammer team a decade ago, Stephen has written countless features and reviews for the magazine, usually specialising in punk, hardcore and 90s metal, and still holds out the faint hope of one day getting his beloved U2 into the pages of the mag. He also regularly spouts his opinions on the Metal Hammer Podcast.