By the late 1990s, Elliott Smith’s songs about needles, narcotics, abuse, and outrage had earned him an outsized reputation as a depressed loner. Many assumed he was simply the male counterpart to the character he’d described on “Miss Misery”—the Good Will Hunting song that had earned Smith an Academy Award nomination. Of course, Smith was more than some solitary brooder recording Roman Candle at home alone: He was also a bandmate who loved to play rock ’n’ roll; a romantic who recorded in the homes of girlfriends and borrowed their instruments; and an endlessly curious musician who studied the intricacies of pop and Bach alike. Smith’s hard-earned songwriting acumen was on full display with XO, the 1998 major-label debut he recorded mostly in a string of Los Angeles studios, working with a tandem of successful producers, as well as a small band that played the very few parts Smith decided not to do himself. The cover of XO, which finds Smith happily at work as producer Rob Schnapf smiles at him behind the glass of a sound booth, serves as a counterpoint to the singer’s mopey public image: He clearly had fun working on building the songs on XO, as he turned his acoustic blueprints into something much bigger. The piano and drums that lock in halfway through “Sweet Adeline”; the rollicking saxophone that swivels inside “A Question Mark”; the ornate a cappella arrangement that guides “I Didn’t Understand”: They all affirmed that the reductive “folk” label had never fit Smith, and that he was always composing complicated pop songs that just happened to be rendered with an acoustic guitar. To be clear, XO does dig into the same fraught emotional terrain as Smith’s previous albums, even when the tunes sound peppy. The masterful and magnetic “Waltz #2 (XO)” is another portrait of family disaster, while the jangling and near-joyous “Everybody Cares, Everybody Understands” is actually a bitter screed for the friends worried about his assorted chemical enthusiasms. Meanwhile, the gorgeous “Oh Well, OK” is a note sent up from a pit of abject loneliness, and the stunning “Pitseleh” directs the hurt he’s done to others inward—making up for any pain he’s caused by pinning it on himself. “Everybody knows you only live a day,” Smith croons during the near-motivational “Independence Day,” his arching voice buttressed by his own crisscrossing harmonies. “But it’s brilliant, anyway.” With that line, Smith—his songs finally animated by the dazzling colors of a full studio—put a prescient point on the tragedy of his life and death. XO is brilliant, anyway.

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