Many albums could be cited to support the claim that great suffering yields great art. Elliott Smith's "XO" should not be one of them. Smith's 1998 major label debut defies the 'tortured singer-songwriter' stereotype and takes up this defiance as a central theme. At a time when Smith was being groomed for a particular (and particularly condescending) brand of stardom, he produced a record that eviscerated one of the central assumptions of singer-songwriters: that pain is beautiful. Indeed, "XO" insists that romanticizing personal tragedy can only leave you 'deaf and dumb and done'. It backs up this claim with some of the most artful and intelligent music of its day. While these themes permeate "XO", the record hardly registers like a thesis statement. The album's title cleverly reflects one of its central concerns - the difference between how we present ourselves and the damage we do through such self-denial. It's simple lyrical phrasing and characteristically hesitant vocal delivery have led many to overlook how mean, witty and incisive XO is. It is the product of an artist who could never quite shake off the stigma of his early work. Matthew LeMay writes an original take on a widely beloved album, steering clear of the sensationalist suicide angles that have dogged most analysis of Elliott Smith's extraordinary work.
"33 1/3" is a series of short books about a wide variety of albums, by artists ranging from James Brown to the Beastie Boys. Launched in September 2003, the series now contains over 50 titles and is acclaimed and loved by fans, musicians and scholars alike.
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