Elliott Smith's producer Rob Schnapf doesn't jibe with the despondent myth of the deceased singer-songwriter and his breakout 1998 album, XO. "There's this quote from Billy Wilder: 'A career is only something you have had in retrospect,'" he says. "At the time of XO, it was like — future's bright. This is going to be awesome. Elliott was at the top of his game before the demons had entered."
XO, released on this day (Aug. 25) 20 years ago, stands at odds with the now-ubiquitous image of Smith: indie rock's depressive poet, a balladeer of heartbreak who died from an apparent suicide in 2003. The case is still open. With a new DreamWorks deal, his biggest budget to date and fresh blood in the room (session drummer Joey Waronker, multi-instrumentalist Jon Brion and producers Schnapf and Tom Rothrock), Smith introduced dynamic, Beatlesque flourishes to key songs like "Sweet Adeline," "Waltz #2 (XO)" and "Baby Britain" -- and the effect was like The Wizard of Oz switching to color.
Smith's friend Larry Crane got to witness this evolution of Smith's sound firsthand. The editor of Tape Op magazine and owner of Jackpot! Recording Studio in Portland who now acts as Smith's archivist, he tracked most of XO's demos. "I didn't tell him what to do. I never said anything. I just helped record," Crane recalls. "But it was kind of fun. The friendship and the recording kind of melded together. So, when he was making XO, he was like, 'I'll fly you to L.A. for a week and you can hang out and watch us work as my little gift to you for helping me do the demos.'" The two spent every day of that week together in a very normal sense. "We hung out every day. We'd go to shows; we went and saw Unwound one night. We visited Largo every once in a while. We weren't partying; we rarely did more than a couple of beers."
Crane was happy to just be a fly on the wall for most of the album's development. Until the making of XO, Smith's recording process was homespun and ramshackle; most of his solo work, including XO's predecessor, 1997's Either/Or, had been recorded in basements and bedrooms. Still, Schnapf sees XO as more of a natural progression than a pièce de résistance. "On Either/Or, Tom and I could have pushed him more, but he wasn't ready to go there yet," he says. "So, we didn't. And that's Either/Or. He never did anything he didn't want to do." On its follow-up, Smith was ready to dive into polished production.
Schnapf and Crane agree on one crucial aspect of the making of XO: Smith was present, motivated and disciplined throughout. "[The album] was very directed and melodically informed," Schnapf says. "It wasn't like a big mess of material. I never felt like we had to build fences to maintain it."
And Smith, who seemed to work with a concurrent John and Paul in his head, was able to make crucial adjustments on the fly. Schnapf remembers how the final track, the choral "I Didn't Understand," came to be. "I asked him if he could do an a capella arrangement of that song — I was listening to Pet Sounds outtakes," he recalls. "We set him up in back room at Sunset. He was working on an arrangement." When Smith played it for Schnapf, it struck the producer as "a little liturgical"; Schnapf asked if Smith could give it a different melodic flavor. Says Schnapf, "He disappeared, came back, and what you now hear is that version. He made it less Bach. Less classical harmony and a little more Beatles or Beach Boys."
The XO sessions weren't without stressors. Not only was Smith tracking nearly every instrument on the album himself, but his non-album single "Miss Misery" had just been nominated for best original song at the 1998 Academy Awards for its inclusion in Good Will Hunting. Suddenly, Smith's mornings were consumed by phone interviews with uninformed journalists.
As Crane remembers it, the introverted Smith was up against "newspaper writers who hadn't really done any research and weren't really that deep into music. I would hear him on the phone going, 'Uh, no, Gus Van Sant didn't discover me in a coffee shop. I already had six albums out.'"
To Schnapf and Crane, that was just the beginning of the public misconceptions about Smith, his music and his intentions. Crane, in particular, is aghast at the title of a 2013 Smith biography, William Todd Schultz's Torment Saint, which is titled after an incorrect hearing of a Smith lyric about a "torn main sail" in the song "Go By."
And XO, for all its tack pianos, timpanis and block harmonies, wouldn't be the furthest Smith would go in the studio. Its follow-up, Figure 8, was even bigger in every way: longer, busier and more eclectic than Smith had ever gone. But as his personal problems mounted over the ensuing years, the conversation about Smith's audacious, Brian Wilson-like command of the studio would be drowned out by talk of substance abuse and suicide.
But 20 years on, XO remains a rebuke of that narrative. The clouds roll in on Side 2, especially on the downcast "Oh Well, Okay" and stinging "Everybody Cares, Everybody Understands," but those songs only seem like downers in contrast to XO's abundant levity.
And, according to Crane, the actual circumstances of the album's creation had nothing to do with any "tortured artist" archetype: "I've got photos of us playing basketball and riding skateboards in the parking lot. People listen to his music and they get this idea of Elliott as this sad-sack dude and all that crap. He was a well-rounded human who had a lot of talent."