Posted by: Necci – Aug 27, 2012
It's taken me a long time to find my way into Xiu Xiu's music. Led by Jamie Stewart, this strange indie band has been around for a decade, and I've run across several of their songs during that time--on the internet, on mixtapes friends made for me, etc. I always found them intimidating, both due to the intensely disturbing subject matter often dealt with in Stewart's lyrics and their unique, somewhat unapproachable songwriting style, which at times seemed like dark gothic synth-pop being disrupted by blasts of clattering experimental noise. Stewart's bizarre voice, a high, breathy gasp that at times makes him sound like a victim of physical torture pleading for mercy, is certainly unmistakable; however, it takes a lot of getting used to. The combination of all of these factors has made Xiu Xiu one of the most difficult bands to attain widespread popularity in the modern indie scene. It also led me to keep them at arm's length for a long time. But with their eighth album, Always, it seems that all of the elements of their music have finally come together in a way that connects with me.
Which is not to say that Always is any more accessible than past Xiu Xiu work. The creepy lyrics, odd song structures, and occasional blasts of harsh, disruptive noise are all in place here, just as they have been on past albums. However, the opening track in particular seems like a sincere attempt to connect, to break out of the isolated internal headspace that Xiu Xiu's songs often seem to exist within. The song is called "Hi," and it begins with the line, "If you're wasting your life, say hi." From there, Jamie Stewart goes through a list of potentially outcast misfits who might be hearing the song, inviting all of them to greet and connect with Xiu Xiu, and by extension, each other. The list of misfits gets implausible and almost cartoonishly dark rather quickly; at various points in the song he addresses those whose "bra is on fire," who "have poked out your eyes," and who "when you open your arms, Ferdinand gores you in the chest." But even when Stewart is directing his entreaties to people suffering torment that seems impossibly horrific, there are elements of more ordinary symptoms of loneliness and pain mixed into the lyrics, making clear that despite the song's flights of fantastic horror, it is intended sincerely. Xiu Xiu's music is an expression of pain, and Stewart's never tried to hide that (their previous album was entitled Dear God, I Hate Myself, which certainly leaves nothing to question). But "Hi" is an explicit recognition that his pain is not just his own, that many of those who listen to Xiu Xiu experience similar feelings to those expressed in the band's music. And it's an attempt to bridge the gap between the band and its listeners, to make clear that when they listen to Xiu Xiu, even though they may do so by themselves in an empty room, they are not alone.
On a musical level, "Hi" feels a bit more approachable as well. Its percussive textures are a bit harsh at the song's louder moments, and the synth melodies running through the song's verses sound cheap and a bit tinny, but Stewart's vocals mix with the synths to create an unorthodox but memorable melody that lodges in your brain and helps to smooth over the song's rougher edges during repeated listens. The next few songs on the album might lead one to think that Always really is Xiu Xiu aiming for accessibility--the cheap/harsh synth sounds of "Hi" are replaced by more polished washes and more overt melodies not at all disrupted by clattering percussion or dissonant noise. These songs--"Joey's Song," "Beauty Towne," and "Honey Suckle"--combine with "Hi" to create a stretch of Xiu Xiu songs that I find really enjoyable to listen to, completely without the intimidating factors that once resulted in me keeping the band at arm's length. But Stewart and co. dispel any illusion that they've softened or become more approachable with the album's fifth track, "I Luv Abortion." The harshness is ramped up to the maximum here, with Stewart's lyrics describing an abortion a young friend of his had, and her feelings that getting the abortion was the best thing she could have done for herself and her unborn child, in the bluntest possible terms. The screamed chorus is as follows: "When I look at my thighs I see death. It is rad! I love abortion! ...you were too good for this life." The juxtaposition of the final line with the three that precede it is chilling in its visceral equation of the termination of a pregnancy with love--which rings true nonetheless, as a poignant and accurate example of the reasons why the right to safe and legal abortion is important.
Stewart's evocation of emotion through imagery relating to detailed physical aspects of human bodies is brilliant, perhaps especially since he often uses said imagery to repulse and horrify the listener. He doesn't require harsh musical backing for his lyrics to do so successfully, either, as he proves on "The Oldness," which follows "I Luv Abortion" with a musical about-face. It's a slow, somber piano ballad that wouldn't sound out of place on an Antony And The Johnsons album, but it also features lyrics like "teasing dirty furry abominations will lick you awake and eat your weight." But it's not until the album's last few songs that Stewart really takes his lyrics to horrifying extremes. "Factory Girl," another quiet, somber ballad--though this one is performed on a succession of unorthodox instruments, which fade in and out of the mix--is apparently about the exploitation of Asian women who work in Chinese factories producing consumer goods for the Western world in poor conditions for criminally low wages. However, Stewart relates this form of oppression to the Eastern sex trade, a connection he makes overt through the lyrical reference to lbfm dot biz, a fortunately-defunct website pertaining to same (which I don't advise anyone to look up, though if you're morbidly curious archive.org will enlighten you). Then the second verse contains the lyric "The sheltering hand casts the shadow of cum thrown on the face of your mom," which strikes me as both brilliant in literary terms and repulsive in a manner akin to David Cronenberg's visceral horror created through doing violence to human bodies (think that head-exploding gif that everyone on the internet has seen, which is a short clip from Cronenberg's Videodrome). The fact that the song ends with the line "thank you for making this purse," after everything that has come before, acts as a metaphorical slap in the face to every economically privileged Western consumer listening to it. Including me, including you, even including Jamie Stewart--a fact of which he is no doubt aware.
There's more horror to be found here, as you will see if you make it to the album's final song, "Black Drum Machine"--the lyrics to which are so fucked up that I don't want to discuss or even quote them. And yet, I'm not at all sorry that I've become familiar with them, or the other more emotionally excoriating moments to be found here. With the relatively approachable first third of this album, Jamie Stewart finally coerced me into full exploration of a Xiu Xiu album, and despite my eventual discovery of everything that ever scared me about Xiu Xiu's music and lyrics within its 38-minute running time, I nonetheless came away with an immense amount of respect for the talent and compositional prowess on display on Always. Xiu Xiu make difficult, challenging music; I've always known that about them, and it remains as true here as it's ever been. There will be some who can't find reasons to enjoy this or any Xiu Xiu album, and I recognize their reactions as valid. Nonetheless, for those with the courage to explore the dark emotional landscapes that the band navigates, and to embrace their unorthodox musical decisions, there is a great deal of musical and lyrical merit to be discovered herein. It may be necessary to brace yourself, but I advise you to give Xiu Xiu a chance; play this album not just once but several times, and give it an opportunity to soak in. The discoveries you'll make will be worth any initial discomfort, and then some.
Xiu Xiu performs on Tuesday, August 28 at Gallery 5 (200 W. Marshall St.) along with Dead Fame and Ghost Lotion. Doors open at 7 PM. Admission is $8 in advance, $10 at the door. Advance tickets are available here: xiuxiug5.eventbrite.com
By Andrew Necci