Sad songs have always said so much to Elliott Smith, even before Good Will Hunting thrust his feathery voice and fatigued-wrist strumming into the mainstream. So it’s hardly a shock that neither an Oscar best-song nomination nor a deal with a mega-mogul label (DreamWorks) has perked him up. As with his indie albums, XO wallows in sentiments and melodies so fragile they should be individually bubble-wrapped. Smith’s world is one in which people continually search for emotional connections–only to lose or break them and then live with the regret. By the bleak finale, “I Didn’t Understand,” Smith is sighing “My feelings never change a bit/I always feel like s—.”
Taking advantage of those Spielberg-Geffen-Katzenberg dollars, producers Tom Rothrock and Rob Schnapf (Beck, Mary Lou Lord) employ a studio’s worth of production tricks to cushion Smith’s morose introspection. They spritz the songs with strings or pool-hall piano (the tub-thumping “Waltz #2 [XO]”), cocoon him in Beach Boys-style harmonies (“I Didn’t Understand”), and pay homage to the “Getting Better”-era Beatles (“Baby Britain”). Smith’s haunted, blood-drained voice still doesn’t convey much nuance–it’s hard to tell when he’s anything other than wistful–but XO generally escapes the often-numbing monotony of Smith’s earlier work.
For all the delicacy of Smith’s Body Shop music, then, why isn’t it ultimately very soothing? Perhaps because beneath their gentility, Smith’s songs teem with a bitterness (“A Question Mark”) and self-pity (“Sweet Adeline”) that often spill over into anger and petulance. (Even when he summons up positivity on “Independence Day,” comparing the object of his affection to a butterfly, Smith undercuts the sentiment with “Everybody knows you only live a day/But it’s brilliant anyway.”) Every generation deserves its own dorm-room-loner balladeer. For better and sometimes worse, Smith, 28, gives voice to his generation’s romantic cynicism and diminished expectations. XO is like an aromatic balm that, when applied to the skin, stings like hell.