Elliott Smith doesn't sound very happy. In the few years since his first solo release, Roman Candle, Smith has honed the art of sad songs to a gleaming point, a point where, despite the depression and bitterness, the songs' ingenuity and honesty leave you smiling.
His last album, 1997's Either/Or, was a dark glimpse into the troubled heart of a boy who can't forget his losses--songs so tragically poignant that the listener couldn't help but speculate about the situations that inspired the verse. There's a palpable contrast between Either/Or and XO; whereas Either/Or was a distinctly northwest record, lo-fi and set in the streets of Portland, XO reflects Smith's recent move to New York--glistening production with a wider array of instruments and street scenery.
The album opens with the softly strummed descending scales of "Sweet Adeline," which finds Elliott grasping for "any situation where I'm better off than dead," although, judging by the sour look on his face at the Academy Awards when Celine Dion and Trisha Yearwood grabbed his hands for their postperformance bow, he may be exaggerating a bit.
When the chorus hits with a shimmering crescendo of piano chords and overlapped vocal tracks, it's instantly obvious that Smith's parameters have shifted on XO (which is probably because he had a DreamWorks recording budget as opposed to a Kill Rock Stars budget).
"Tomorrow, Tomorrow" is embellished with similar vocal tracking over Elliott's intricate finger-picking, lyrically exploring a character's hopelessness and the failure of others to see it--"They took your life apart/They called your failures art/They were wrong though." "Waltz #2 (XO)" is a sorrowful lullaby of detached love ("She shows no emotion at all/Stares into space like a dead china doll") that's still somehow inspirational in its blind devotion ("I'm never gonna know you now/But I'm gonna love you anyhow").
The upbeat "Baby Britain" is both the biggest departure and the most tantalizing pop song thus far for Smith. Over ragtime-esque piano, Smith sings reassurances to a bitter, alcoholic girlfriend and himself ("London Bridge is safe and sound/No matter what you've been repeating/Nothing's gonna drag me down/To a death that's not worth cheating"). Lyrically, "Baby Britain" is the best example of Smith's penchant for smiling in the face of depression. One senses that this is as happy as he gets.
The final two tracks, "Everybody Cares, Everybody Understands" and "I Didn't Understand," close the record with the requisite bitterness expected. "Everybody Cares" is perhaps the most personal song on this album, pushing away a "pure synthetic sympathy/That infuriates you totally," an all-too-common phenomenon for an artist whose repertoire leans toward alcoholic tales of unhappiness. "I Didn't Understand" is a virtuoso breakup song, done a cappella--"There's nothing here that you'll miss/I can guarantee you this . . . I waited for a bus/To separate the two of us"--and an explanation of sorts for his attitude: "I always feel like shit/I don't know why/I guess that I just do."
Expectations for XO are understandably high, considering it's Smith's major-label debut and the hype surrounding his Academy Award nomination for Good Will Hunting, but it's no surprise that XO delivers. Elliott has no pretensions; he's simply this decade's most talented sensitive boy rocker. Just don't tell him you understand.
Scraps at Midnight
(Sub Pop Records)
Scraps at Midnight is a dark business. Mark Lanegan's third effort outside of the Screaming Trees wastes no time in initiation. The cheerily titled opening track, "Hospital Roll Call," is a cartoon surfabilly romp featuring a giant-sounding hollow-body guitar that painfully bends into nothingness. The word "sixteen" is mysteriously stage-whispered at random, the only lyric. It's the first stop on a 10-track tour of Mark Lanegan's inner weather, and the forecast doesn't call for sunshine.
Lanegan's voice--full of bar-rag water, cigarette butts and world-weariness--is actually deeper than on his last release. It's the voice that carries these painful diary entries, melodic and old, bent but not broke, a rich baritone that at times is nearly subsonic. His voice is a perfect complement to the organic, minimalist soundscapes, and cryptic lyrics like "if only the moon would have left me alone" make Scraps sad fun.
Mike Johnson of Dinosaur Jr. played on and co-wrote this album. The better songs dwell in the Nick Cave/Leonard Cohen underworld. "Bell Black Ocean" is a drunken boat rocking melodically back and forth, featuring only acoustic guitar, piano and Lanegan's voice. It ends just when it begins to hypnotize, and resides in your head for days.
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"The Last One in the World" is the only really weak song on the record, with self-consciously pretty music and sentimental lyrics. It belongs on the B side of a single, not in the middle of these great songs.
The album bounces back with the next track. "Wheels" features J. Mascis and Tad Doyle, and the added players fill up the empty space to great effect. The song begins as a spare desert landscape. The melody then pulls you along until it swells ferociously, with so many things going on that a saxophone doesn't sound strange on this largely quiet record.
These 10 offerings from the talented Lanegan constitute by far his best collection. Deeply personal and sometimes hard to listen to, this album's goal is not to depress but to exorcise. "Livin's not hard/It's just not easy," he explains to those who need explanations.