This album changed my life: Elliott Smith – XO (1998)
The album accompanied Homebeat’s Emmet Condon on many train journeys as a student
“The first haunting strains of the organ in the intro of Independence Day brought a new perspective to my musical world.”
The train from Dublin to Limerick these days is a far cry from the often freezing, rickety, rolling carriages of 1998. The traditional Friday evening dash from the slightly beleaguered students of bedsit Dublin towards the warm fires of home was marked by a lack of seating, which had the incredible cross-continental effect of making the journey, next to the open window of the compartment between carriages, the temperature of the Trans-Siberian, while mimicking the overcrowding of the Darjeeling Express.
It was amid this clatter of railway and smoke that Elliott Smith’s XO holds such sway in my memory. I was just in my first few months of a drama degree in Trinity. I loved music but fell into theatre. I was bluffing in college, but at home with a guitar in my hand. I had spent the last few years as a child of the 1990s in thrall to Nirvana, The Smashing Pumpkins, Pearl Jam and Radiohead.
The first haunting strains of the organ in the intro of Independence Day brought a new perspective to my musical world; the beauty of that song still breaks my heart. The doubled-up voice of Smith brought a truth and a simplicity back to music in a post-grunge era. The gentle strains of Pitsela and the crash of Bottle Up And Explode were the twin pillars of songs that spoke to a young man trying to find his way in the world. Smith’s overbearing honesty was impossible to ignore.
It’s an album frozen in time by his premature and tortured death, the sensitivity of his brittle voice now a dark shadow rather than a treasured artistic trait. But, a few hours spent alone on an old train in the midst of a dark December evening are seared into my memory by the album, and the sounds of Smith accompanied me on many journeys to follow.