xi. "they took your life apart and called your failures art"
Elliott's fourth album, XO, was released in July 1998 on the Dreamworks label. The title was always explained by Elliott as referring to what one writes at the end of a letter: "kisses and hugs" (for non-American readers, the X stands for a kiss and the O stands for a hug). Others have suggested that it might refer to Irish whiskey, or a club in which it is served in Portland. Musically, the songs were very reflective of the new community Elliott was finding since moving to LA, playing gigs at Largo, improvising with Jon Brion, and having Sam Coomes and Janet Weiss come in to do some tracks on the new record. Lyrically, the songs on XO seem to have a bit more of an edge to them: a little more anger, a little more joy, a little more crackling emotion all round. In the song Sweet Adeline he sang:
cut this picture
into you and me
Regret for the past and a love that did not work out (this may, or may not refer to his off-again on-again relationship with Joanna) trails through other songs on the album as well, including the beautiful mezzotint Waltz No. 1:
Everytime the day
Contrasting with these were songs that seemed a bit more upbeat: Pitseleh, Baby Britain, and the marvelous Independence Day, which could undoubtedly have been a huge radio hit had the label seen fit to release it as a single:
In some ways the signature songs of the album were the first track, "Tomorrow, tomorrow," which married regretful phrases to an upbeat melodic line (fingerpicking heaven or hell, depending upon the circumstances) and a refrain determined to look forward to tomorrow's challenges or cheers.
I heard the hammer
at the lock
And the final track, "I didn't understand," cast as a glee-club homage (Elliott's grandmother meets the Beach Boys?). Sonically exquisite, the lyrics convey the feelings of a man with subzero self-esteem trying and failing to find the courage to love with unnerving realism:
i waited for a bus
to separate the both of us
cos my feelings never
change a bit
you once talked to
me about love
Again, the sentiment is one of bitter regret, yet the "dying fall" of the vocal line-as in so many of the bleak but sumptuous songs of Either/Or--seems to hint that something beautiful has after all come to life amidst so much pain. A strange consolation, perhaps, but one worth savoring.
xii. May 16, 2000
Elliott is playing with Sam, Aaron Embry, and the magnificent drum god Scott McPherson on the stix, in Lupo's Heartbreak Hotel, Providence, Rhode Island.
His face when he
sings seems almost to float above the microphone. His eyes softly closed,
sometimes squinting as if he were having a flashback to some sharp stab
of emotion, at other times serene and at one with himself & the
music. His long dark silky hair framing his face like a halo around
a bodhisattva's transfigured visage. A sudden smile quivering over his
lips like a wave crashing on the beach. His voice, now whispery &
almost translucent, now hectoring and relentless, now high and vaporous
and filled with almost unbearable rapture. Especially when he slowly
floats from high note to high note on "Waltz No. 1" which
is an incredible song whether live or on record.
After a November 2001 concert at Spaceland, another fan commented:
i seriously think people should be forced to take off their shoes before seeing elliott play. it's either that ....or maybe fake some miracle like if it started to rain inside or an image of the virgin mary crying appeared on some wall or maybe the sound of a huge car crash in the middle of the set
xiii. Still here if you want me (afterword)
The three years from 1998 through 2000 brought a degree of media attention onto Elliott's life that, judging from asides he made in certain interviews, he clearly found at times irritating, distracting, or even downright uncomfortable. His association with Dreamworks resulted in two of his most beautiful albums-XO and Figure 8-and several tours, some of them taking him around the world, where he found enthusiastic and devoted fans even as far away as Japan and Australia. In the Summer of 1998, music filmmaker Steve Hanft (who had worked on some of Beck and Jon Spencer's videos) and some of Elliott's friends collaborated with Elliott on Strange Parallel, a short film which explored how intimately many people have reacted to the experience of Elliott's songs and performances, interweaving this with hip, humorous commentary on the weirdness Elliott has had to confront both in real life and in his own mind as a result of all these "strange parallels." (Robot hand, anyone?) All in all, the movie is a series of snapshots capturing just how profoundly Elliott's life had changed in the two years since 1996 and the making of Lucky 3.
Writing these words in July 2002, the past 18 months have seen a much more diminished public profile for Elliott. His public appearances have been few, but when he has appeared, he has shared with us some of his most delicately crafted, boldly conceived songs. Many of these seem to be returning to images that have emerged from his own life experience; we might think of the phrase "took a long time to stand, took an hour to fall" in Passing Feeling, or these lines from True Love:
i had to go to rehab
people that have
lost their true love
However, I prefer to close with these lines from another unreleased song, one he performed at some shows in March 2000, and, rumor has it, may actually make it on his next album:
still here if you
The sun of Elliott's
art still lights up our skies. We raise our eyes and it's 2:45 a.m.,
but the darkness has words and we're looking at a moon like a broken
light bulb, high on the amphetamines of the fragmented emotions his
words have released in us. Ultimately, beauty is its own excuse for