It has become an American tradition: gathering the kids around the phonograph in the living room, you and the missus in matching footie pajamas, your after-work hair tussled just so, a round of big glasses of whole milk in Bobby and Suzie’s little hands, all of your loved ones together in one place to have a listen to the new Xiu Xiu record.
“This is the worst vacation ever,” harmonizes tiny Bobby, “I’m going to cut open your forehead with a roofing shingle.”
Xiu Xiu’s Jamie Stewart has spent the last decade (!) creating one of the most coherent, immediately recognizable aural worlds in contemporary music. Picture Stewart leading a tram tour of this world, his breathy Morrissey-on-Percocet voice piped through the tinny speakers, pointing out the sights. To the left, you will see a man equally charmed and disgusted by another man’s deformed penis. To the right, you will see a woman with duct tape on her mouth and nipples, and you will be unsure whether or not she is enjoying or hating her bondage. Probably, it’s a little of both. Something that sounds like pieces of a broken plate glass window thrown against the world’s largest brass cymbal suddenly fills your ears, and you say ouch.
The tour is over, and you immediately step over the velvet rope – what is that stain? – and wait for it to begin again.
Xiu Xiu’s new offering, Always, sees Stewart again jettisoning his past teammates and sidling up next to a new partner, Angela Seo. But, per usual, despite whatever iteration of names appears on the liner notes, Always sounds like a Jamie Stewart production through and through. Xiu Xiu’s last album, Dear God, I Hate Myself (2010), was the project’s most accessible of its career. Stewart turned the noise down, the melodies up, and made – arguably for the first time in his life – a true pop record. Always feels like something of a return to his abrasive comfort zone.
The album’s opening track and first single, “Hi”, stands apart. Its lyrics are so wonderfully, utterly Xiu’d, that perfect mixture of the macabre, heartfelt, and amusing Stewart can so readily concoct. “If you are alone tonight, say hi,” sings Stewart, “If there’s a hole in your head, say hi.” Dumb, meaningful, meaningful, dumb. The chorus, captivating with Stewart’s stuttering rhythms, builds into a surprisingly muscular coda by song’s end. The song, like the rest of Xiu Xiu’s best material, is an uncomfortable mess of conflicting tones, bubbly keys and bursts of dissonance – the type of creature that would, if you met it at a party, toss daggers your way in equal measure for laughing or not laughing at its deadpan asides.
Statistically, the second track on Xiu Xiu albums is usually the strongest (see: “Apistat Commander,” “I Luv the Valley OH!,” “Muppet Face,” “Boy Soprano”), the place on his records where Stewart decides to drop his most emotionally direct, compositionally immediate song of the bunch. On Always, Stewart keeps the pattern going. “Joey’s Song,” with its gorgeous chorus – Seo’s backing vocals sound almost Balearic, a new one for Xiu Xiu – becoming more indelible with each repetition.
But after this initial one-two, Always loses some of its shape. “Beauty Towne” and “Honey Suckle” mine the dark electro-pop of Dear God to good effect, though neither is as memorable as the best efforts on that album. It would have been more interesting to find, after seeing its title on the track list, “I Love Abortion” to be a pretty, gentle track, but it’s the most aggressive cut here, disappointingly transparent in its grab for attention. Stewart is usually more complicated than that. Fortunately, “The Oldness” surprises with its plaintive piano, one of the least self-conscious tearjerkers in Xiu Xiu’s catalogue.
Always’s Side B feels almost shockingly incomplete when compared to the material preceding it, with a number of tracks fading from memory right when they finish. “Factory Girl” at least features some interesting production, a subtle panoply of strange noises not vying for primacy so much as contented to create an atmosphere. “Smear the Queen” gets off the ground by virtue of Stewart and Seo’s engaging duet, while “Black Drum Machine,” in its stretches of silence and jagged vocalizations, recalls the early days of A Promise in a way that’s at least charming for longtime fans, if not completely gripping.
Ten years into his career, it’s difficult to find anyone still on the fence about Jamie Stewart and Xiu Xiu. However, though his detractors would argue otherwise, Stewart doesn’t make music intent on polarization as its primary goal. Rather, he writes songs in a voice so distinctive and unusual that it can’t help but seem too strange – or too convinced of its strangeness – to some listeners. I don’t think this is an effect; I think Stewart is the rare artist who hews as closely to his creative impulses as possible, letting them take him to places both uncomfortable and inviting, depending on the moment. If nothing else, this is a sort of fearlessness, and that’s worth your time.