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Elliott Smith was a musician and songwriter everyone who loves music should listen to. If you’ve never heard his music before, rather than recommend entire albums, have a listen to the following songs: “Miss Misery”, “Say Yes”, “I Figured You Out”, “Needle in the Hay”, “Between the Bars” and “Angeles” – incredible, right? And if you’re already familiar with his music, you’ll know how unique he was as a talent. Unfortunately Smith killed himself in 2003 at the age of 34 after a lifetime of depression and numerous problems with addiction. His legacy of music will live on forever though, especially his 1998 album, XO.
Rather than focus on the gossipy side of Smith’s life like his drug/alcohol problems and his preoccupation with suicide, Matthew LeMay has chosen, very commendably, to focus on the art itself. Addiction in itself isn’t that interesting, especially in comparison to great art, and Smith himself wasn’t interested in expressing it in his music, looking upon the kind of self-pitying naval-gazing such song-writing celebrates as repulsively shallow.
This is the third 33 1/3 book I’ve read, the series which looks at and discusses seminal albums in bite-sized, dinky paperbacks. In The Pixies’ Doolittle, we see one of the most influential rock bands ever creating their best album and catch up with the band 20+ years later to discuss what the album meant and means to them. In The Beatles’ Let It be, we see the greatest band of all time in their last days but still producing amazing music, with that entire time period providing a fascinating story filled with many strong characters.
XO has no such compelling story. Smith was out of rehab (not for the last time) and was clean, throwing himself into his work, producing some of the finest music of his life. The recording went smoothly and everyone involved recollects their time in the studio fondly. And that’s it. Because of LeMay’s refusal to discuss Smith’s private life, most of the book focuses on his interpretations of the songs on the album, writing about them track by track, sprinkling them with details of Smith’s creative process and some technical details but essentially giving us his version of what each song is about and what they mean. Unfortunately, it’s not that gripping to read.
The book does highlight Smith’s talent as a lyricist, allowing for multiple interpretations and giving LeMay plenty of fodder to discuss the poetry of his words at length. And it is poetry, those lyrics are so unlike any you come across in any genre of songwriting - you can appreciate his work minus the music, just by reading the lyrics they’re that good. It also shows how much Smith cared about his art, spending years crafting songs, tweaking them year after year before committing them to record.
It was fascinating to see how “Waltz #2”, arguably XO’s best song, went from being a seemingly autobiographical story about his parents to a story that could be about anyone with some interesting dramatic characters. Conversely, it informed me how some songs on the record were written on the fly, with a song like Pitseleh being knocked out more or less in the studio. Pitseleh in particular is a song I’ve never really liked and the haste in which it was assembled partly explains my reaction to it as I feel it wasn’t as accomplished as other songs on the album. Smith also never played it live, probably believing it was unfinished or too incomplete a song and embarrassed to remind himself of it.
More than anything though is that the book emphasises how generally upbeat Smith’s music is, despite the tone of many songs. His whispered, seemingly personal lyrics about despondent characters, drug imagery, and assorted other connotations that most would interpret as the hallmarks of the depressed artist producing depressing work, are all misleading. Many of his songs aren’t necessarily uplifting but aren’t nearly as sad as some would say. LeMay tries to remove the shadow of Smith’s suicide from the music itself, saying that whatever Smith’s personal problems were, he consciously left them out of his work, and I think that’s a very true statement. There’s the art and then there’s the artist.
If you’re looking for a book full of stories of drug hazes and fights, you won’t find it here – instead you’ll find a thoughtful, though very dry, study of Smith’s album XO. While it’s not the most fascinating read, it underlines something about Smith I didn’t realise until I read this and that is that a satisfying, warts’n’all bio about him is likely to never appear. Partly because his family and friends won’t speak about him to anyone, but because, as LeMay asserts throughout, the most interesting thing about Elliott Smith by far was his music - nothing in his life quite compared to his art. So if you want to find out the kind of man he was, listen to XO, and Either/Or, and From A Basement On A Hill, or any of his albums – everything he was is in his songs, never to be caught in the pages of a book.