Note: This review was originally published on the Berkeley BSide. You can check it out (along with the rest of the site) over here.
Xiu Xiu, led by South Bay native and creative genius Jamie Stewart, are one of the most interesting, refreshing, consistently abrasive, and unpredictable bands this side of Death Grips. In some ways, they are to synthpop what Death Grips are to rap–very coarsely a member of the genre, but riding multitudes of innovative and what some might call ‘inaccessible’ production techniques, combined with an extremely emotional vocalist and a prolific work ethic. Their last effort, 2016’s Xiu Xiu Plays the Music of Twin Peaks, is one of the most beautiful but downright harrowing albums I’ve ever heard, and I’d highly recommend it to anyone looking for exciting, avant-garde instrumental music (with a few amazing vocal performances thrown in).
The record’s opening seconds are perhaps its most off-putting, as Jamie raps in a fast, aggressive voice “You wanna see it/ you wanna tick it / wanna lick it wanna kiss it you wanna whisper in my ear, bitch?” “The Call” thus rides along at a breakneck pace and Stewart delivers evocative lyrics in his trademark operatic, vibrato-heavy style regarding the desire to be wanted and loved by an emotionally abusive partner, and the rap voice that returns of a chorus of “Clap, bitches!” appears to represent the aggressor. The narrative technique is masterfully employed, but the question with Xiu Xiu is never “can they be interesting?,” but always “how much do these experiments take away from the enjoyment of the record?” “The Call” straddles that line, but I think the lack of a great melody tips it in the wrong direction. Forget is the band’s 10th (!) LP in fifteen years, and while it incorporates some of the elements from Plays the Music of Twin Peaks, the LP also sees the band return to some of their more familiar sonic and lyrical elements. Forget feels like a breakup record, but helmed by a songwriter as tortured and manic as Stewart, the record could potentially be alluding to numerous personal relationships in his life. Perhaps it could even serve as a metaphor for the struggles of others. The songwriting nonetheless sounds pained and personal, as do almost all Xiu Xiu releases. The sonics are still jarring, the structures eerie, off-kilter, unexpected. There are no shortage of surprising, almost jump scare-like moments on Forget and the record holds onto lyrical themes, including learning to forget a bad relationship, and relearning how to not hate oneself after years of emotional abuse.
“Queen of the Losers” ups the production intensity, with huge, climactic industrial rhythms, metallic and squirming synthesizers exploding all around, a whole host of indescribable sounds, and a characteristically fierce Stewart performance. “What’s your name? Fucking nothing,” he repeats in the songs outro, reinforcing the idea of forgetting oneself, or some previous version of oneself. The record’s best song, “Get Up,” dials back the intensity for a sweet melody and some of the most straightforward lyrics on the record, with Stewart singing, perhaps to a parent, “A piano fell on my face / you told me to get up / Do you hate me / Because I seem so stupid?” The song maintains a delicate balance: always teetering on the edge of a climax the way a nervous person teeters on the edge of a breakdown, and when it’s finally delivered, it does not disappoint, kicking off with Stewart yelling “You’re the only reason I was born!” a line that is at once simple and extremely difficult to parse.
Similarly, the record’s best songs are the one’s where Xiu Xiu can strike a balance between melodicism, exciting production theatrics, and raw intensity, like lead single “Wondering”, which couples a wonderfully catchy chorus with anthemic vocal harmonies. The second half of the album pushes more in an electro pop direction (it’d be a stretch to call Xiu Xiu music dancy), to mostly positive results. The title track moves between sections of vibrant but ominous synthesizers, acoustic guitars, industrial rhythms and Stewart’s insane, pleading chorus of “Forget! Forget!” “At Last, At Last” juxtaposes stripped back verses with choruses that sound like an EDM show inside a haunted house, while the penultimate “Petite” takes a break from the electronics and grind for a pretty, but unnerving acoustic and string ballad that Jamie has stated (in this great Tiny Mix Tapes interview) deals in subjects as dark as sex trafficking. It then links to the closer, “Faith, Torn Apart,” which combines an airy, almost middle eastern instrumental suite with churning, marching beats and unsettling spoken word lyrics (“What do you want me to do? I want you to kill me. Crushed to death)” before a creepy, haunting poetic finish read by notable queer writer and artist Vaginal Davis, listing attributes of child sex workers whose photos Stewart came across online.
The record is another solid Xiu Xiu release, as they proves once again that so long as you wield a weapon as powerful as Jamie Stewart’s singing voice, it’s hard to go wrong. At the same time, I feel that the band is treading familiar waters, tragic as that territory may be, without breaking through to new and exciting sonic territory, as they did on Plays the Music of Twin Peaks. Nonetheless, as long as the Chainsmokers are topping the charts, it’s comforting that you can still reliably grab a handful of new Xiu Xiu songs secure in the knowledge that you’ll still be treating yourself to some emotionally disturbed nightmares for as long as you engage in Stewart’s fucked-up world.