When frontman Jamie Stewart announced late last year that Xiu Xiu’s sixth studio album, Women as Lovers, would be “more approachable or communicative on a basic human level” than any of the band’s previous releases, a substantial number of fans likely scratched their heads in disbelief. After all, it had always been a form of anguished unpredictability that made Xiu Xiu a contemporary staple in the genre of experimental art-rock, with additional unconventional structural techniques making compatible similarities to other artists seemingly impossible. With past lyrical content that included perverse sexual fantasies, grotesque fetishes, and descriptive violence — often supplemented by instrumentation that would be easily classified as avant-garde — Stewart has always been rightfully credited as being a poetically brilliant lyricist, with an ability to write songs that treat the listener to simultaneous feelings of heartrending romanticism and uneasiness difficult to match. Such history can beg a simple question: Just how “more approachable” is Women as Lovers when compared to Xiu’s Xiu’s past releases?
In a probable effort to appeal to the small majority of listeners that found Xiu Xiu’s instrumental approach to be too cyclically linear, what Stewart may have been vaguely referring to is the fact that Women as Lovers sounds like the most instrumentally expansive album of Xiu Xiu’s career. Their increased implementation of brass and live drumming provides for an experience that renders more realistically capable and thus thoroughly impressive. Drummer Ches Smith makes his mark as arguably the largest reason for the slight audible transition on the album. Whether he is performing in a hastily aggressive fury in “In Lust You Can Hear the Axe Fall” or managing to keep his presence more subdued on the unsettlingly brilliant “The Leash”, the variaiton his percussion provides makes Xiu Xiu’s trademark sound even more wholesomely appealing in ardency and enthusiasm. Additionally, this form of preciseness does not even slightly detract from the band’s appeal. In fact, it makes the cause for satisfaction even stronger, as Stewart’s eccentrically addicting melodies appear more confidently supplemented than ever before.
The album’s most accessible and initially satisfying track, “No Friends Oh!”, serves as excellent indication of the group’s efforts to promote this new emphasis. Apart from showcasing some of Stewart’s most fulfilling songwriting of his career, the song serves as a nostalgic reminder of Xiu Xiu tracks where pop-oriented hooks reigned supreme over eerily sparse instrumental content. It beckons accessibility in the same way that “Save Me Save Me” and “I Luv the Valley Oh!” did, mixing unpredictably appealing verses with a consistently explosive chorus of epic proportions. “Tommy and Dan, you can’t hold hands”, Stewart sings in his lovably torturous croon during the chorus, enhanced by an remarkably layered brass progression that remains slightly out of key for rewarding effect. “Who cares you’re gay / But it’s your age / No friends oh”. The common interpretation indicates it being a romantically tragic fable of a pedophile falling in love with a young boy, though Stewart’s expectedly ambiguous use of wordplay provides cause for open interpretation. Whatever one chooses to believe, though, there is little doubt that the grim effects of society play a large role.
Like the lyrical content on “No Friends Oh!”, a common theme throughout Women as Lovers appears to be the vile form of corruption that society has on the children that are forcibly exposed to it. With a chilling organ and delicate guitar progression, “Black Keyboard” relays the tarnishing effect on a child in a home of vile mental and sexual abuse. “Be free, laugh at your son / A child is nothing without hate”, Stewart sings, with a touch of sarcasm ringing in his quivering vocals. He coaxes up imagery throughout the album in tragically impressive form, whether it be of a child being pushed on a swing by a deranged mother on “Black Keys”, an infant who dies of parental neglect in “Gayle Lynn”, or the social reject who pops both percocet and pimples on “White Nerd”.
The only foreseen hiccup on the album is “Master of the Bump (Kurt Stumbaugh, I Can Feel the Soil Falling Over My Head)”. Though it contributes to the appropriately barren atmosphere throughout Women as Lovers with a delicate mixture of subdued guitars and whirring keys, the repetition and lack of variety makes it generally monotonous. Fortunately, it is presented as the only track on the album that remains mildly uninteresting in the lyrical and instrumental aspects. It simply pales in comparison to tracks like “F.T.W.” that use a variety of unconventional production effects and samples to create a memorably appealing sound. It takes a lot to doubt a song that features an exchange of acoustical strums, erratically capricious percussion, and electronic beeps that are reminiscent of a drugged up R2-D2.
Suitably being the only track on the album that shows any signs of predictability, the cover of Queen’s “Under Pressure” (featuring Michael Gira of Swans fame) gives an enjoyable twist on the classic, with Stewart’s torturous squeals adding an entirely new twist to the song. Both “I Do What I Want, When I Want” and “Under Pressure” throw the listener into a type of free-form jazz with a brief saxophone solo. Although the style initially causes the listener to feel some slight disorientation, several listens later reveal that Xiu Xiu’s intentions are more premeditated than originally exposed. The same can be said about the “In Lust You Can Hear the Axe Fall”, an energetically consuming track that almost seems to be an ode to dark post-punk greats in the vein of Bauhaus through its use of heavily distorted guitars and bass. Stewart remains generally incomprehensible throughout his high-pitched torturous strains, and the tone is appropriate in contrast to the emotionally transitioning instrumental presentation. Through Stewart’s melodic prowess, it remains infectious and wildly successful.
Though few would have predicted that Xiu Xiu would increase their already empowering form of ambitiousness, Women as Lovers capitalizes on it as yet another bold and consistently satisfying release in Xiu Xiu’s discography. Like its preceding releases, Women as Lovers is a grower that will warmly reward listeners who give it the time it deserves.