Jamie Stewart has that rare ability to find tragedy in the most joyful of moments. The Xiu Xiu mastermind has one of those love-it-or-hate-it voices, a keen pop sensibility, and the guts to go against it at all times. His solo acoustic cover of Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car”, though a bit on the long-side, turned a tear-jerking pop-folk hit into something that sounded like a man’s final pleas while he’s unexpectedly bleeding to death. He’ll give ridiculous titles to songs like “Ian Curtis Wishlist” and “Muppet Face” while not containing a single smirk of irony. You might raise your eyebrows, but he just might break your heart as well.
Though long-running with his cultish following, Xiu Xiu really didn’t reach its pinnacle until his 2004 release Fabulous Muscles. Poppy and disturbing in equal measures, it was a great album, with the sheer emotional vulnerability and anger of “Support Our Troops Oh!” making for what stood as Xiu Xiu’s defining statement: electro keyboard and guitar weirdness with poignant haiku-like poetry sometimes spoken and sometimes sung over it. Though this has always been Stewart’s MO, it never was stronger than it was on Muscles. Yet when 2005 came around and Stewart released La Foret on the world, there couldn’t help but be the feeling of a letdown, even among the most hardcore of Xiu-followers. Every album that Stewart releases has some great songs and some less-than-stellar ones—each album is either just “well rounded” or having standout tracks that redefine the term “standout tracks.” It’s a tough back catalog to rank.
The Air Force is, without a doubt, Xiu Xiu’s best album and grandest statement. Continuing to sabotage otherwise-perfect pop numbers, here the sabotages in question make the Xiu Xiu experience all the more compelling, instead of distracting. “The Fox & The Rabbit”—at the one-minute mark—suddenly throws in a swelling string section to compete against the electro pop-and-lock IDM beats and surprisingly simple lyrics about looking into space and simply not knowing one’s place in the universe. By the end, keyboard reverb is stretched out to fill up an entire canyon with sound, still maintaining the simple beats that started it. The dark electro-wash of “Bishop, CA” starts with the line “This blue dawn of sickly light / That is daytime in your embarrassed town / Burns a hole in the fading yellow ribbon / On your fading white color cavalier,” and reminds you of a great Xiu Xiu strength: to find emotional vulnerability in abusrdism. “When I see the hate in your eyes / It doesn’t make us better men” Stewart croons, inflecting as a disaffected man and an angry man with equal gusto. Yet by the time we get to the end (and after the Flaming Lips-style orchestra swell), Stewart has started the pop-chorus chant of “walla walla walla walla walla walla hey”, we’re coming closer and closer to nothing but sheer bliss. All the frustrations that fans have felt in the past with this part or that part are now what makes Stewart an undeniably compelling figure. He always has been, but never in as accessible a light as this.
Though no true theme emerges in the long-run, it doesn’t matter—it’s just a collection of great songs, with highlights by the bucketful. “Save Me Save Me” comes across as what would happen if Stewart inexplicably was fronting Interpol (to great results). Caralee McElroy scores her own great number with “Hello from Eau Claire”, a pop ditty about wanting to become a man, drenched with bell-laden verse and chorus lines. Though the dark ballad opener “Buzz Saw” and the fairly meandering instrumental “Saint Pedro Glue Stick” may be a bit off-putting to some, they still are minor dents in an otherwise spotless sheen. Even a melancholy song like “The Pineapple Vs. The Watermelon” is given a deliciously catchy guitar line—giving lines like “That’s why you decided to kill yourself / To prove it wasn’t true” all the more shock value.
When we get to the closing “The Wigmaster”, we are given a tone poem that’s both overtly sexual and intensely emotional at the same time. The string quartet seems to hit notes only when they feel like it, as if the entire genre of emo was suddenly given an internal monologue that is, surprisingly, intensely compelling. When Stewart speaks the line “Loneliness isn’t being alone / It’s when someone loves you / And you don’t have it in you to love them back,” it’s official: All bets are off—with The Air Force, Xiu Xiu has released their greatest album. Savor it.