By now, if you know the name Jamie Stewart, you either find his emotionally wracked compositions fascinating, or completely unbearable. There’s no middle ground when it comes to people’s opinions of the mastermind behind Xiu Xiu, just as his music has no middle ground. The man simply will never, ever play it safe: just when you’re being lulled by a plaintively strummed acoustic guitar, massive shrieks of distorted synthesizers puncture your eardrums. As you begin to realize one of his songs is rather lovely, he starts singing about sodomy, in very graphic detail. He’ll croon tenderly one second, and emit insane shrieks the next. Stewart is a master at keeping audiences on the edges of their seats: they’re either leaning closer to drink it all in, or they’re preparing to bolt.
Ever the prolific songwriter, Stewart continues to adhere to his self-imposed quota of one album per year, and Xiu Xiu’s latest, La Foret continues the odd progression of this extremely odd band. If 2003’s A Promise ranks as one of the most harrowing “dark night of the soul” recordings in at least the last decade, last year’s Fabulous Muscles was a most refreshing departure from the sparse, minimalist sounds of its predecessor, with the band employing some surprisingly mainstream musical touches, best exemplified by the brilliant “I Luv the Valley”. The music was still as intense as people expected, but offset by the improved production and pleasant synth sounds, it was much easier to digest than ever before. It was a somewhat triumphant piece of work, proof that Xiu Xiu were capable of actual musical growth, and not just a bunch of dime-a-dozen, whiny indie artists.
So, a little more than a year later, La Foret has thrown us all for yet another loop. If Fablous Muscles was a major step forward, the new disc offers a tentative step backwards, and to the side a bit. Nestled uncomfortably between the hushed tones of A Promise and the programmed sounds of the last album, La Foret is murkier, much more enigmatic, and, true to form, as unsettling as always.
Opening track “Clover” is as understated an album opener as you’ll hear, akin to a singer shambling onto a stage and quietly singing, while an indifferent audience keeps talking amongst themselves. “I tried hard to be good to you/ I felt peace inside my head,” sings Stewart, 20 seconds in. Could it be that the man has finally found happiness and is ready to stop moping and get on with his life? As Bob Mould once said, not a snowball’s chance in hell. Stewart’s voice quavers, a plaintive cello and vibraphone enters for a minute, before giving way to the solo acoustic guitar, and Stewart delivers the expected payoff line: “It’s unmanageable to just keep on living.” The song has a stately beauty to it, chilly as it may be, and for once, it’s the instrumental backdrop that sets the mood best, not Stewart’s lyrics.
As is always the case with Xiu Xiu, there’s a childlike quality underscoring this very dark music. “Muppet Face” bursts with Casio beats and frenetic glockenspiel notes; after a cryptic, surreal verse (“This shirt clings like dander/This kiss scrapes like rust”), a cacophonous chorus of ringing synths all but drowns out Stewart’s howls. The piano-tinged “Mousey Toy” is yet another tale of dominance over Stewart’s protagonist, and includes lyrics that reach a new level of narcissism, as he declares, “This continent is led by the holocaust beneath my ribs.” The juvenile poetry of “Ale” (“Shut up shut up/ Is that your glass heart clinking?”) is tastefully accompanied by clarinet and bass clarinet, while “Bog People” has a deceptively innocent, song-song quality to it, its cheerful arrangement offset by hints at domestic violence (“There will always be a lonely son/ There will always be a humiliated little girl”).
It’s the vicious “Pox” that stands out above everything else on La Foret; much like “I Luv the Valley”, it is as vitriolic as it is catchy, and for the first time, Stewart, a major Smiths and Joy Division fan, comes close to matching the acid-tongued post punk of his heroes. A cold, insistently downstrummed electric guitar carries the song, synths swirling and electronic beats thumping in the background, as Stewart does his best Ian Curtis impersonation, singing in the menacing, slyly catchy chorus, “Jesus is wondering/ If even he can love you.” He is absolutely merciless, muttering bitterly, “This plastic coffin always in the shade of your sickening daughters and your idiotic hobbling wife,” seething with rage toward his subject. This song could very well be the best song the man has written to date.
As solid as the rest of the album is, La Foret does struggle to reach the heights that “Pox” achieves, and the dense, nearly unlistenable “Saturn” is the one track that does not belong, a needlessly self-indulgent fantasy of what Stewart describes as, “wanting to rape the President and eat his body.” After that needless distraction, though, the album cruises along confidently, concluding strongly with the aching “Yellow Raspberry”. By bringing in more musical variation into the mix, Stewart has managed to keep things interesting enough again, the arrangements making his frantic outbursts more palatable than ever. When all is said and done, though, Stewart remains as sick as ever. If there’s one positive thing about Xiu Xiu’s music, it’s that if you ever feel miserable, it’s oddly heartening to know that somewhere in this world, Jamie Stewart feels much, much worse.