Thursday, October 24, 2013

Waltz #2 (XO),” the third song on XO (1998), is Elliott Smith’s certain masterpiece. It’s got a roadhouse, Wild West, player-piano feel to it. And the tune, with its staccato ¾ beat, takes Smith back to Cedar Hill, the suburbs of Texas with his mother, Bunny, and stepfather, Charlie. There’s love in “Waltz #2 (XO),” but a deeper impulse is anger, aimed squarely at Charlie. Brilliantly laid out in metaphorical cloakings, the song’s a secret life history, summarizing Elliott’s feelings about the Cedar Hill atmosphere and the intricacies of his relationship with mother and stepfather. He was always exceptionally worried about the possible hurtfulness of his lyrics. The thought that they might cause harm pained him. So a habit was established according to which he’d begin songs directly, explicitly autobiographically, then revise away from fact toward vagueness and abstraction. Choice specifics grounded the song, but meanings trailed off into obscurity. Emotionally, it was an elision of the personal—there but camouflaged—a self-erasure. He was in the songs, they were him, it was his personal past reconsidered, the sum total of who he was, but they were more too, a mix of voices, first, second, and third person, all getting a word in, all with something crucial to say. “XO,” as Smith told an interviewer in 1998, means “hugs and kisses,” the sort of thing people throw in at the end of letters. A more arcane, connotative meaning was “fuck off.” “But that’s a really rare meaning I didn’t know about,” Elliott explains, apparently sincerely.

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