By David D. Robbins Jr. | Their Bated Breath
Xiu Xiu “Always” (Polyvinyl Records)
Release date: March 6, 2012
It could be said Xiu Xiu and lead singer Jamie Stewart wear weird like a badge of honor. This is a band that loves to wallow, giving morbidity a kind of religious reverence. Let’s face it, Xiu Xiu is the manifestation of Stewart, who is unafraid of being aberrant, revolting, and often self-lacerating. But don’t mistake it all for cheap theatrics or solipsism. At its best, Xiu Xiu combine a real pop aesthetic with arresting moments of lyricism, finding innovative combinations of rhythms and melodies to underscore Stewart’s oscillating sad-sack voice. After a decade of playing music, Xiu Xiu titled their newest record “Always” as an acknowledgment to a cult of devoted fans who have followed the band through a career of singing songs for outsiders, obsessives, rabble-rousers, miscreants, masochists, fringe-dwellers, castaways, and those bold enough to tattoo their Xiu Xiu love, like the image on the record cover. The frenzied album opener, “Hi”, is littered with loner aesthetics and unmistakable Xiu Xiu lyricism: “If you’re wasting your life say hi / If you’re alone tonight say hi / If you wish he should die say hi / Hi, hi, hi, hi / If there is a hole in your head say hi / If you have a stitch in your wrist say hi / If when you look at the sky, it is black and shredded /Sliver of bone could get caught in your throat, well silence is golden /A shard of bone sticking out of your arm, well blood is beautiful.” Imagery slip-slides through broken glass, being gagged, and a hippopotamus devouring a crocodile. It’s a wonderful stream of synthized-arcade melodies, brutal poetics, driving rhythm, and Stewart’s breathy utterances of h-heavy words like “hole”, “head”, “behind”, and “hi”, infusing the song with an infectious kind of heaving histrionics. Where else but Xiu Xiu music would you get verses like this: “If your bed is a living hell say hi … / If you have poked out your eyes say hi … / If there is a bomb in your mouth / Broken glass will shine for with the moon”?
The word “always” could also be applied to the never-ending eccentric explosion of pop-art experimentation and uncompromising imagination that Xiu Xiu has always stood for. Songs like 2004’s jaw-dropping “Fabulous Muscles”, with its blatant twisting of sexuality and violence, can be considered one of the strangest love songs ever written or a completely satirical insincerity, full of dead-pan mockery. It’s a perplexing marriage of sensuality and barbarity. But that’s just the Xiu Xiu way. Unusual beauty in the shadows. Don’t try to figure it out, just enjoy the creation for what it is. When Stewart hits that second note on the phrase “honey boy”, it’s pure beauty. Whether he takes on the unsettling topic of lusting masochistically after glistening jocks, or whether he’s singing about incest and murder, it’s difficult not to feel engaged. In 2010, the band left major-music media shaking its collective head after posting a music video for “Dear God, I Hate Myself”, which featured band member Angela Seo purging herself. Sure, it’s beyond some people’s limits of taste — but with Xiu Xiu it rarely feels like a stunt. For Xiu Xiu the personal and political always intertwine, whether it’s a gag gross-out or a diatribe at what Stewart views as the “anti-Xiu Xiu” — villages of right-wing hate-mongers who love war and stand in the way of the rights of everyone who wants to fly their freak-flags high. Stewart said the song “Dear God, I Hate Myself” emerged from a sincere moment of despair, “The title came from a night a literally being on my knees and speaking these words in a prayer to God. It is about the tension between feeling hopeless but also feeling as if spiritual love is possible and there for you if you want it.”
Not all listeners will find Xiu Xiu or “Always” appealing, but the band is what is best about art: people finding the courage to engage any subject, however worthy or brutal. “Factory Girls” is tension-filled track about sexual objectification and Western values, falling away into the ironic line, “Thank you for making this purse”, and an inventive spitting rhythm and percussion. The frantic “Gul Mudin” is about a 15-year-old Afghani boy murdered for sport by 12 kill-happy American soldiers. “Joey’s Song” is meant as a comfort to Stewart’s brother in the aftermath of family tragedy. It’s a stunning and dark track that finds solace in knowing loved ones who’ve died wait for you out there somewhere. The song is colored with an 80s sense of pop, deconstructing into a soaring Beatleseque-Indian guitar riff which melds flawlessly into ghostly tormented wails and a children’s church chorus. Xiu Xiu has always found ways to mix traditional pop with its esoteric leanings. “F.T.W.”, from off 2008’s “Women As Lovers”, owes something to folk music and The Cure with all of Robert Smith’s anxiety-laden spiders. And yet, musically, the song also has its freak-out moments — writhing dissonant electric guitar braids into bursts of eerie feedback. The recently-released single, “Beauty Towne”, continues the pop strains of “Clowne Towne”, while segueing into the wildly avant garde through a multiplicity of garbled voices. “I Luv Abortion” misses the mark, and is Xiu Xiu at its most self-indulgent. Perhaps it’s too sincere for its own good, barely holding together enough to actually become a song. Although its cacophonous explosion does run beautifully counter to the dimly-lit piano-ballad, “The Oldness”, which would be right at home on an Antony & the Johnsons album. “Chimney’s Afire” moves in an and out of pretty strings and driving noise rock.
If there’s one thing to take away from “Always” it’s that Xiu Xiu is dead serious about its approach to art music. Some critics may point to a lack of Xiu Xiu irony or a deficiency of humor on this record. Or that Xiu Xiu are just too damn sullen. And they’d have a point. The last track, “Black Drum Machine”, is like a funeral song, which ends the album on dark notes of screaming and razor-sharp dissonance. But that too is just the Xiu Xiu way. It’s apropos the band named its latest record “Always”. The word connotes permanence on many levels: a deep blood-red stain, the sickeningly unforgettable photos of a soldier posing over the corpse of a murdered boy, a death in the family, a collective sense of despondency, and the connection between the band and its loyal following. Note: The tracklist is as follow: 1. “Hi”, 2. “Joey’s Song”, 3. “Beauty Towne”, 4. “Honeysuckle”, 5. “I Luv Abortion’, 6. “The Oldness’, 7. “Chimneys Afire’, 8. “Gul Mudin’, 9. “Born to Suffer’, 10. “Factory Girls’, 11. “Smear the Queen’, 12. “Black Drum Machine”. Follow the band on facebook. Xiu Xiu currently consists of Stewart, Seo, Bettina Escauriza, Marc Riordan, and Devin Hoff.