A singer/songwriter with a major label recording budget is, as they say, kind of like a mule with a spinning wheel-- no one knows how he got it, and damned if he knows how to use it. But rather than obfuscating his songwriting gift with syrupy string sections and armies of backup singers, Elliott Smith used his Dreamworks debut, XO, as an opportunity to further focus the emotional power of his previous releases. Melancholy and grandiosity may seem mutually exclusive, but on XO, they're combined to wonderful effect, each crystalline guitar line and majestic piano arpeggio adding momentum and depth to Smith's gorgeous and impassioned vocals.
Indeed, the most striking thing about XO may very well be the elegance and restraint Smith brings to his songs. Smith always managed to say a lot with a striking economy of sounds and words, and not a single note here seems forced or gratuitous. Though Smith was being preened for stardom at the time of its release, there's not a self-indulgent moment to be found on the record-- even its most elaborate parts seem infused with the unassuming spirit of Smith's own musical discovery. XO shows a man poised to take over the world, still content to find new and moving ways to sing about it.