Why are gloomy guys with guitars so groovy again? Pop has been on such a female empowerment trip–radiating feminism and marketing in the same dance step, pumping out chest-thumping divas as if MTV were one never-ending Star Search episode, go-on-girling the gung-ho Lilith gals–that we almost didn’t notice the rebirth of the Sad Young Man, exemplified in 1998 terms by the little indie loner that could, Elliott Smith.
Smith does with hushed chamber-rock arrangements and love’s everyday anguish what the Messed Up Young Cranks of grunge did with volume and drugs: this similarly tortured soul creates an intimate luminescence that sucks you in, lulls you with melodies that are true, primal, lush, and lasting, and gives you lyrical room to project your own emotional wreckage. Like the grunge-sters, he’s both ordinary guy and freak, someone who feels too much and copes too little. He seeks transcendence in The Song, a craft at this point so tied to female expression that his wee hymns sung in a guileless cry seem androgynous, angelic, not at all bound to the earth, even when his words abound in humdrum disappointments.
What’s remarkable about this 29-year-old Portland-to-Brooklyn transplant is not that he merely worships The Song at a time when boys with electronic toys and dead-end guitar drone have deemed such a thing extinct, but that he recaptures its enigmatic magic. In a typical Smith tune, a calm sea of syllables establish mood more than they supply specifics. Then his vibrato-free childlike voice shifts to a higher, more desperate register, and he’ll nail an observation that captures the poetry of prosaic life. “You got a look in your eye,” he sings, “when you’re saying good-bye, like you wanna say, ‘Hi.'”
XO refills the prescription of his highest-profile ode to the Sad Young Girl, “Miss Misery,” even if Smith now refuses to perform Good Will Hunting‘s Oscar-nominated surprise in light of what was only a blip on the media meter. With that line of behavior, Smith stands a good chance of fucking up–in the not-so-grand indie tradition–his opportunity to reach the mass audience that his tuneful talent warrants. Nevertheless, he’s aged into something greater than his own sizable insecurities, boasting both singer-songwriter-multi-instrumentalist chops and the depth that makes them signify, makes you hold your breath for fear that he might not get to the end of the song, much less a higher plane. And he possesses what most rock males have for years declined to project: charisma. Whenever he performs his quiet, unassuming and yet utterly memorable heartbreak arias, people shut up. When was the last time a fragile white man held that power?
Kurt Cobain, maybe? XO is so hooky and desperate and yet so well-crafted that it could be the Nevermind of a new song-friendly era. A record that palpably wants you to like it, XO allows its creator to potentially attract people who might not even want to be in the same room with him. That’s a loaded gun for a guy with a self-destructive streak, and I sure hope he’s more prepared for superstardom than Kurt was. Smith might be the SYM who makes the radio safe again for sensitive solo males. (With George Michael and Rufus Wainwright also on its roster, DreamWorks is banking on someone doing it soon.)
Although his open-book emotionality, folksy acoustics, DIY playing, and lack of ambition fit an Amerindie continuum just as the grand drones of his fellow SYMs in Radiohead/ Verve/Spiritualized fit the English rock art-house heritage, Smith sounds like no one since those melancholic post-Beatle dudes Big Star, Badfinger, and Harry Nilsson: XO‘s ode to retro-Anglo, “Baby Britain,” namechecks both Revolver and “Crimson and Clover.” His signature sound favors multitracked vocals mixed strikingly loud and reverb-free, as if he’s whispering a choir of confidences in your ear. With every one of his four solo albums, this ex-Heatmiser hits more notes more poignantly, moving from cool croon to upper-register whine and back again with an innocent confidence that compliments his characters’ confusion–his instrumental and arrangement skills have grown to grasp what he’s been reaching for all along. Despite his Kill Rock Stars history, Smith’s now-undeniable presence is pure pop: You can’t help but be touched by his dear humanity.
Boasting a title that accidentally announces itself as the sequel to “Miss Misery,” the hit-bound “Waltz #2 (XO)” has verses catchier than his competitors’ choruses matched to lyrics demanding multiple listenings to detangle. But this waltz has an immediately indelible refrain, one the arrangement highlights with rhythm dropouts and a final punctuation of descending strings that appear from nowhere to end the song with a sudden lover’s leap. “I’m never gonna know you now,” Smith sings, “But I’m gonna love you anyhow.”
It’s a totally My So-Called Life sentiment, the kind of unconditional love oath young dreamers scrawl in notebooks filled with hearts and flowers until they shred the paper scribbling out the name of the former beloved when they’ve been inevitably burned. And it’s one of the many things that endear Smith to females whose maternal instincts are activated by his unwashed neediness. Not blessed with traditional Bop boy looks, Smith is nevertheless a babe magnet because his emotions are so naked even when his words are obtuse, his relationship songs so obviously codependent in the best way. He’s trouble, the girls know it, and they want to cure him regardless.
Musical moodswings document Smith’s shifting sentiments as quiet uptempo tunes like “Pitseleh” and slow loud ones like “Amity” embody ambivalence. The fragile, skeletal folk Smith introduced on his ’94 solo debut returns on “Tomorrow, Tomorrow” to alternate with fleshed-out tunes such as “Bottle Up & Explode!” that rock not with volume but awareness. Acoustic guitar picking and subdued keyboard plunking take dual lead on “Independence Day” when lesser talents would be cranking amps. The strings of “Waltz #1” and sax on “A Question Mark” aren’t slick, but thorny. This unlikely aesthete gets busy with sweet, ornate vocal harmonies throughout, yet goes to town with the f-word. Smith’s radiant when the music’s glum, despondent as his improved but still shaky drumming strikes up perky toe-tappers, and the arrangements rarely end the same way they begin. Rather than colorizing his art, a major label recording budget has allowed Smith to achieve richer shades of grainy sepia.
“My feelings never change a bit/I always feel like shit/I don’t know why/I guess that I just do,” Smith harmonizes with himself in the angelic a cappella choir of “I Didn’t Understand.” A tour de force in miniature, it comes on the heels of the brooding “Everybody Cares, Everybody Understands,” where Smith sings about sympathy and sunshine as if they were curses. For this final kiss good-bye our SYM puts on a happy face, singing like the ghost of Nilsson backed by a glee club of adolescent Brian Wilsons who reel you in as the lyrics lay bare the pain behind the pop. “You once talked to me about love,” Smith sighs, “And you painted pictures of a never-never land/And I could have gone to that place but I didn’t understand/I didn’t understand/I didn’t understand.” The background oohs and ahhs conclude the melody until the noise of the outside world once again takes over, leaving the listener more alone than ever.