Xiu Xiu's seventh studio album constantly begs the question: is Jamie Stewart serious?
Xiu Xiu's Jamie Stewart has always had an air of ridiculousness about him. With a quavering sad-sack voice that comes off as a cross between Edwyn Collins and Robert Smith of the Cure, Stewart is always crooning about his existential misery as if he's about to collapse into a convulsive, blubbering heap. Reasonably by this point in the group's career, we should just accept it as a characteristic quirk of the band's sound. Still, Xiu Xiu's new album Dear God, I Hate Myself constantly begs the question: is this guy serious?
Putting aside Stewart's intentions for the moment, there is plenty of good music to be found on Xiu Xiu's seventh studio album. Featuring the addition of new band member Angela Seo and frequent contributions by producer/Deerhoof member Greg Saunier, Dear God, I Hate Myself is based on pulsing rhythms and glitchy electronic textures that Xiu Xiu uses as a foundation from which to stage its tuneful melodramas. Keeping with Xiu Xiu's equally arty/tweeish bent, four of the songs, including the title track, are primarily performed on a Nintendo DS gaming system. Despite the emphasis on this and other devices, the electronics are largely used as jarring noise to enhance the arrangements instead of carrying the hooks. These textures veer from intriguing to annoying. On “Secret Motel” it sounds like Stewart ran excitedly to the nearest keyboard in the studio and started pressing all the buttons to create random melodies. Regardless, Xiu Xiu's jittery heart-on-the-sleeve approach to experimental pop is endearing and results in some great songs, such as “Chocolate Makes You Happy”, the plaintive “Hyunhey's Theme”, and the bleak atmospherics of “House Sparrow”.
Having said that, Dear God, I Hate Myself can be off-putting to those who wonder if Stewart's maudlin musings are one big joke. Throughout, Stewart's histrionic voice pushes against the songs. He is always threatening to burst into melodramatic wailing or a sobbing mess, yet never does. As usual, Stewart weds his vocals to mopey lyrics that seem like they're hell-bent on out-Morrissey-ing Morrissey (sample lines from “Dear God, I Hate Myself”: “Despair will hold a place in my heart / a bigger one than you do do do / and I will always be nicer to the cat / than I am to you you you”). The instinctive approach upon hearing Stewart sing is to burst out laughing. Certainly this reaction has to be partly intentional. In a Scene Point Blank interview, Stewart expressed his belief that humor has a place in music as long as one uses humor “from your heart and crotch rather than a way to avoid showing yourself”, and cited Morrissey's old band the Smiths as an example, describing them as “one of the funniest bands of all time and the most touching".
Xiu Xiu's approach can in fact be distancing. The songs are frequently emotionally overwrought, usually due to Stewart's delivery, to the point of ludicrousness, making it impossible to relate to the sentiments within. Sure, Xiu Xiu's mix of levity and melancholy can yield enjoyable tunes. “Chocolate Makes You Happy”, for example, derives its charm from how ridiculous it is. Even then, the humor overwhelms any attempts to create empathy with the song's subject, and is jarring when intertwined with sobering lyrical details like a reference to bulimia. Xiu Xiu's attitude can undercut its music in other ways. The surging opener “Grey Death” aims for anthemic grandeur, but instead comes across as if the band is trying to make fun of British Sea Power or some other post-punk revival tradesmen. Even if Xiu Xiu has sincere intentions, the album projects the impression that it's willing to indulge in absurdity at the expense of the emotional heart of the songs.
On a musical level, the dense-textures-meet-winsome-pop of Dear God, I Hate Myself are accomplished enough that unconverted listeners should do themselves a favor and investigate Xiu Xiu's increasingly refined sound. The band does get better with each release, and even when it doesn't hit the mark its music is at the very least interesting. But it's not surprising if Stewart's cartoonish distortions of weighty emotions drive listeners away. Maybe someday he'll be able to find the humor in suffering in a way that doesn't sound like he's taking the piss.