By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
He looks like death warmed over. He covers John Lennon's "I'm So Tired" in concert. He is meek, tender, and fey. He's a wimp, he's a hunk, he's an angel. He's a rainbow. And, as fluke would have it, he might be the most successful indie songwriter to come around in five years.
After establishing roots in the hard rock of early-'90s grungers Heatmiser, then moving on to record three quiet, folkie albums of varying merit, Portland-based Smith announced his presence in Middle America with an Oscar-nominated folk tune from a middlebrow movie. His "Miss Misery" played a "Sounds of Silence" role in Gus Van Sant's Good Will Hunting, looming over the film's brilliant/passionate/irascibly ambivalent Matt Damon character as he forsakes community and career to drive his souped-up beater from Boston to California in search of true love. The conflation of The Outsiders and The Graduate was ham-fisted enough to make the script-craft on the WB read like The Cherry Orchard. And in employing Smith's tepid acoustic playing and wispy sex appeal, it made a tattooed alt-folk icon out of a guy who'd previously been little more than one of underachieving white rock's distant white hopes.
Right now it's difficult to tell just how many Middle Americans are prepared to join the critics' cream session that's welcomed his just-out major-label debut X/O. Statistically speaking, the NSA would have a tough time getting its collective head around the exact number. Yet, somewhere between the 11 Heatmiser fans, the 150,000 people who bought last year's indie hit, Either/Or, and the 30 million TV viewers who used Smith's Oscar-night performance as an excuse for a bathroom break, exists a rather hefty group of admirers. Let's say 500,000, give or take an estranged indie-rock grouser and/or ex-smack dealer.
Whatever the number, a vast majority of said legion will be rather surprised when they pick up X/O and see that anti-society's child has realized himself as a pop-boy. Soaked in baroque strings, saxes, and pianos, singing Beach Boys a cappella on one track while indulging himself with a pair of waltzes (one the single), the Smith of X/O is as far away from post-grunge or indie rock as one can get without being Ben Folds. Yet his biggest hook--the "Baby Britain" reference to the Beatles' Revolver--sets an ironic tone, with Smith undercutting his cuteness by slapping a lover with the bitchy dis, "For someone half as smart/You'd be a work of art." Throughout, waiflike Elliott's wraithlike singing suggests Big Star's Chris Bell at his most cosmic and Paul Westerberg at his least intense. And X/O comes with a sense of a self-aware--almost self-satisfied--maladjustment.
Yet, its pop-poetry fades in and out, not with Big Star's dreamy lucidity or Westerberg's grumpy lyricism, but with the bleary impressionism of half-recalled bouts with mid-afternoon alcoholism. Lines and images scatter without reason--and making sense of this is like trying to catch a single shred of confetti thrown from the 12th floor of an office building.
It's spooky. The first three Smith albums all traded on a precarious relationship with that old indie-male bugaboo, dependence. So much so that Smith had to go out of his way in interviews to downplay the role his oft-noted friendship with opiates had had in his songwriting. In that vein, X/O's "Independence Day" sees him look into the abyss of slack and pray for a friend's self-discovery: "I'll meet you here tomorrow...Independence Day."
Independence might mean happiness, but it usually means aloneness, a private pursuit of beauty. Or in this case, solipsism. X/O's prettiest track (the aforementioned Beach Boys reference, "I Don't Understand") finds him happily realize, "you'd soon be leaving me alone like I'm supposed to be tonight, tomorrow, and every day." Hide the Liquid Plumr; Elliott's coming over.
At 29, Smith--the AC/DC-loving son of a single mom--who grew up aware enough of his own intellectual and spiritual growth to briefly join the green-hairs at Massachusetts's freak-friendly liberal arts college Hampshire, has one thing on his mind: himself. If you appear on X/O, you appear as helpmate or antagonist. This may make him a bit of a post-alt James Taylor, but it is encouraging in one sense: This is the first time we've tried out a guy like this since Kurt died.
Let it be known, however, that if Kurt's John Lennon was the womb raider of "Mother," Elliott's is the angry young softie of "Jealous Guy" (another tune he performs live). And despite the Village Voice's misleading claim that X/O could be "the Nevermind of a new song-friendly era" (why new?), X/O has no aspirations towards community. It will make excellent mix-tape fodder, and that's about as universal as it wants to get. So, consider it a baby step back to Cobainia--our first attempt at trusting a singer whose self-absorption is as complete as our own--and a lot more apparent.
And, with each step, notice how often sweet baby Elliott dresses his obsessions in the imagery of childhood. The album's music-hall opening track, "Sweet Adeline," is about his grandma, his finger-picking referencing the '70s folk he may have picked up as a kid visiting his songwriting father in Portland. At one point he swoons at the sexual allure of a young enlistee of the Hello Kitty brigade, and throughout he clutters his tunes with toy imagery and mama metaphors.
In fact, X/O is less about capturing youth than not growing up. The lovely first single, "Waltz #2 (X/O)," sees him estranged from a recently married love object. "She shows no emotion at all," he sings with pain, offering what sounds more like a presumption than an observation. Fading in and out of love and loss, our little soldier collapses: "Just leave me alone/In the place where I make no mistakes/In the place where I have what it takes," he rails with childlike anger. But X/O is so pretty, honest, and, in its pop bliss, so free of mistakes, we're willing to allow him all him that and more. We may even wanna crawl in with him: goo goo.