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Elliott Smith was not a guitar-toting troubadour. Or really that much of a sad sack. A longtime Portland resident, Smith was one of the best songwriters of the ’90s before he tragically died in 2003 from two self-inflicted stab wounds to the chest. In writer Matt LeMay’s 33 1/3 book on Smith’s pop opus XO, the scribe for Pitchforkmedia.com and leader of the hooky indie-rock band Get Him Eat Him, discusses the semantics behind Smith’s work and how the archetype of Smith as a “folk singer” and “druggie” often overshadows—or more precisely, influences—the way we listen to his body of work. The 33 1/3 series is dedicated to writing critically about canonical pop albums.
LeMay, like many in their mid-20s, first discovered Smith after he performed “Miss Misery” at the 1998 Academy Awards, and he uses that memory as a jumping-off point for his book. That means he has to first debunk the great myth that was created around Smith during XO’s release in 1998: that he was the writer of sparse acoustic songs about self-loathing, filled with allusions to suicide and rich personal details about drug use. While it’s almost impossible to separate the humble and slightly awkward singer, decked out in a white suit and playing the song on an acoustic guitar, from his immediate work, LeMay repeatedly makes the point that Smith was actually an incredibly talented pop songwriter.
Most of the book is dedicated to breaking XO down track by track, tracing the progression of the 14 songs that ultimately made the final cut. In doing so, LeMay points out that the final version of songs like “Waltz #2 (XO)” and “Everybody Cares, Everybody Understands” are significantly less personal than their original incarnations. As Smith tweaked his songs, he tended to move away from personal experience and narrative; direct addresses became third-person pronouns, and the oft-quoted language about drug use is used to reflect outward, not inward. Interviews with Larry Crane (Jackpot! Recording Studio creator and close friend of Smith’s) and Rob Schnapf and Tom Rothrock (recording and mixing on XO), plus LeMay’s careful listening to an extensive catalog of demos and live recordings, further enhance this claim.
Though LeMay’s writing is a bit academic, his knowledge and the incredibly detailed deconstruction of Smith’s catalog puts the focus squarely on XO—something many other books in the 33 1/3 series miss by trying to contextualize an album too much to the outside world. Ultimately the debate at the heart of the book is the idea of objective listening. It’s a conversation that has raged in criticism before music critics even existed: Is the process of listening to music always influenced by the social and cultural ideas surrounding it? Smith’s legacy might be as a cautionary, tragic figure, but maybe that’s missing the point. For once, we should let the music speak for itself.
READ: Matt LeMay reads from Elliott Smith’s XO at Reading Frenzy, 921 SW Oak St., 274-1449. 7 pm Thursday, May 21. Free.