Song of the Day #724: ‘Waltz #2 (XO)’ – Elliott Smith

A year after the success of Either/Or and his Oscars adventure, Elliott Smith signed with DreamWorks Records to release his next album, XO.

It was on this album that he began to stretch his musical ambitions, introducing horns, strings and fuller instrumentation to his typical acoustic guitar arrangements.

Opening track ‘Sweet Adeline’ showcased his new direction, starting off the way all of his songs had up to that point — with a delicate acoustic guitar track and his whispered vocals — before exploding at the halfway point into a glorious cacophony.

It’s interesting that a guy who was so adept at the simplest arrangements turned out to be hiding an inner Beach Boy. The elaborate production and instrumentation on Smith’s next few albums was spot-on and though he could always be counted on to deliver a poignant acoustic masterpiece, he clearly preferred to stretch his wings and experiment with new sounds.

My favorite song on XO is today’s Song of the Day, ‘Waltz #2 (XO),’ a tune apparently written about Smith’s mother. Smith’s parents divorced when he was young and he wound up living with his mother and her new husband, whom Smith later accused of sexual abuse.

Knowing that back story makes these lyrics quite poignant, even if not all of them are easy to decode. The first verse references the “man that she’s married to now” and the “girl he takes around town,” alluding to infidelity that leaves his mom showing “no emotion at all.”

In the second verse Smith says he’s glad his memory of his childhood is hazy and recalls being repeatedly told “you’re no good.” “Can’t you tell that it’s well understood?” he replies.

Most powerful of all is the short chorus, in which he acknowledges that he’s lost his mother (is she dead or just estranged?) but not his need for her: “I’m never going to know you now, but I’m gonna love you anyhow.”

First the mic, then a half cigarette
Singing “Cathy’s Clown”
That’s the man that she’s married to now
That’s the girl that he takes around town
She appears composed, so she is, I suppose
Who can really tell?
She shows no emotion at all
Stares into space like a dead china doll
I’m never going to know you now
But I’m going to love you anyhow

Now she’s done and they’re calling someone
Such a familiar name
I’m so glad that my memory’s remote
Because I’m doing just fine hour to hour, note to note
Here it is, the revenge to the tune
“You’re no good,
You’re no good, you’re no good, you’re no good”
Can’t you tell that it’s well understood?

I’m never going to know you now
But I’m gonna love you anyhow

I’m here today and expected to stay on and on and on
I’m tired
I’m tired

Looking out on the substitute scene
Still going strong
XO, Mom
It’s ok, it’s all right, nothing’s wrong
Tell Mr. Man with impossible plans to just leave me alone
In the place where I make no mistakes
In the place where I have what it takes

I’m never going to know you now
But I’m going to love you anyhow
I’m never going to know you now
But I’m going to love you anyhow
I’m never going to know you now
But I’m going to love you anyhow

4 thoughts on “Song of the Day #724: ‘Waltz #2 (XO)’ – Elliott Smith

  1. Amy says:

    When I went in search of this video (after the one you posted was unceremoniously yanked), I was surprised to find multiple renditions of Smith and an acoustic guitar. Where are the promised horns? The inner Beach Boy? Perhaps you can share one of the songs featuring the “new sound” that appeared on this album?

    Meanwhile, the one I’m sharing (until it, too, is yanked) apparently comes from a documentary called “Strange Parallel.” After this week, I may just have to check it out.
    Here is the song,…

    Very sad how damanged Smith was. I know it’s a stereotype to imagine someone sitting in a therapist’s office rehashing his childhood in the hopes of restoring his mental health, but maybe doing that would have helped Smith come to terms with whatever happened to him when he was young. If he were still with us, I would think that a song like this is his form of therapy, but clearly that wasn’t the case.

  2. Clay says:

    Damn YouTube. I found another version of the studio recording and replaced it. Let’s see if that one lasts.

  3. Dana says:

    Great song. I plan on hearing the rest of the album on my IPod on the plane ride to Seattle:)

  4. ange_etrange says:

    I would like to exchange links with your site
    Is this possible?

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