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
burn it backwards kill this history
make it over make it stay away
or hate'll say the ending that love started to stay
it's a picture perfect evening and i'm staring down the sun
fully loaded deaf and dumb and done
waiting for sedation to disconnect my head
or any situation where i'm better off then dead

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 darkens down
and goes away
pictures open in my head
of me and you:
Silent and cliché
all the things we did and didn't say
covered by what we did and didn't do going through
every out i used to cope
to make the repetition stop:
what was i supposed to say?

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:

Future butterfly
gonna spend the day higher than high
You'll be beautiful confusion
ooh once i was you

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
say you're deaf and dumb and done
give yourself another talk
this time make it sound like someone
the noise is coming out, and if it's not out now,
then tomorrow ... tomorrow...
they took your life apart
and called your failures art
they were wrong though
they wont know
'til tomorrow

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
and take me off far away
from you

cos my feelings never change a bit
i always feel like shit
i don't know why
i guess that i "just do"

you once talked to me about love
and you painted pictures of
a never-neverland
and i could've gone to that place
but i didn't understand

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.
I kept thinking the concert couldn't get any better, and then he would find some new cascade of notes or choir of rhapsodies that transported the audience to a still higher realm of bliss. One of the kids on the street afterwards commented spontaneously: "It's like going to church." Yeah, like going to church is supposed to be--a true spiritual experience, a contact with something fine and authentic and genuinely transcendental.

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
all i need is a safe place to breathe
is this where it's at
half of no chance
steps in a dance
your life's just a combat
now i'm the king of the ward
cause i'm good and i swallow my sword
puke it up
for the doctor to write a new prescription
tranquil as a dove

people that have lost their true love
all seem to fit the same description
i feel cold, useless and old
wish i was no one
take me home
take me home today
take me out of this place
take me out, do it today

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 want me
look at what i can do
with empty time
lost love and words that haunt me
dead calm
on the tranquil
sea between you and me
well that's all that is but
i'm here if you want me my love
dancing on the highway
your sun still in my sky
oh my oh my

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 being. ENVOI