Jamie Stewart can sure leave a lasting impression on a listener. No one is better at feeling miserable, singing about feeling miserable, and making every single person who hears his music feel just as miserable as he is. Just when you thought your life couldn't get any worse, along come Stewart and his band Xiu Xiu to further blacken your world. Their 2002 album A Promise was one of the most intensely personal, harrowing records to come out in the last decade, which, considering the never-ending abundance of melancholy artists out there, is no mean feat. With its creepy cover photo, and even creepier music, which roars, whimpers, and seethes, it's not an album you play just for the hell of it. Despite its unsettling sound, though, it's also an album that, underneath all the noise, is oddly beautiful. One could sense that if Stewart could make another album that would be a bit easier to stomach, then he could be really on to something.
A huge fan of the Smiths, the prolific Stewart has mentioned that he'd like to match the '80s legends' one-album-per-year pace, so here we are, 12 months after catching our collective breath from the last record, with yet another potentially gut-churning opus from Xiu Xiu. The cover photo of Stewart nuzzling a kitten on his shoulder is indicative of the guy's sense of humor; not only is it a tongue-in-cheek response the stark photo on the front of A Promise, but it's also an image dripping with irony, for the mood on Fabulous Muscles is as dark as ever. But anyone could have predicted that. What is most surprising is the slight shift in Stewart's musical direction, a change that makes for a remarkably accessible album, which is easily Xiu Xiu's best yet.
Even more focused and direct than the previous album, Stewart describes Fabulous Muscles as being constructed around the theme of negative dominance, be it political, sexual, or emotional. Unlike several tracks on A Promise, where Stewart sounded a bit vague and oblique at times, here, he is completely unflinching, blunt even. He muses about his favorite five-year-old student, who was molested by his older brother ("Brian, growing boy stay stay stay awake is my prayer for you"). He divulges his family's grim history to his young niece ("I can't wait to tell you your grandpa made your mommy play stripper while your uncle watched"). He sings of physical abuse by a partner ("Break my face in / It was the kindest touch you ever gave"), as well as the mental strain of being stuck in a difficult relationship ("It feels retarded, I want you to like me"), and speaks from within the deepest, darkest depths of despair ("Your true self has become weak and alone and annoying and a true ridiculous dumb ass"). Stewart is going to let you know how he feels, and he's going to do it with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer to the skull.
Musically, a Xiu Xiu album has never sounded richer. With the exception of a pair of acoustic tracks, the focus of Fabulous Muscles is more on an electric sound, with a heavy emphasis on synthesizers, and despite being a homemade, and typically minimalist, there's some striking musical depth here. "Crank Heart" may be built around a drum machine and synths, but Stewart and his cadre of guest musicians tear into the song with enough fire to rival that of post-punk legends Wire. "Bunny Gamer (b)" borders on IDM, with its stuttering, clicking beats, while "Little Panda McElroy (b)" keeps things minimal, with its rumbling bass and jarring synth chords. The tragic "Brian the Vampire" features a contrasting, almost playful synth arrangement, as if Stewart is trying to communicate more clearly to his child subject, but on the equally bleak "Nieces Pieces (Boat Knife Version)", Stewart sings over a mournful accompaniment by a trombone and harmonium.
Especially great is "I Luv the Valley", which starts off sounding as accessible, as radio friendly as anything Xiu Xiu has ever done, with its insistent rhythm guitar, melodic bass line, and a charming, chiming Smiths style lead guitar lick. However, Mr. Stewart won't let you get off that easily, as he quickly adds jarring, booming beats and his own insistent, emotive vocals. The contrasting melody and cacophony is enthralling, Stewart sounding like someone trying to block out some nasty thoughts in their head, eyes closed, hands covering the ears: "I won't rest until I forget about it / I won't rest until I don't care / LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA." A polar opposite to that track is "Fabulous Muscles (Mama Black Widow Version)", where it's just Stewart and his acoustic guitar, plaintively singing, combining raw physical desire ("Drape my hope upon the chance to touch your arm"), explicit sexual imagery ("Cremate me after you cum on my lips"), and violence ("Wigging out before the unfamiliar flash of my broken neck"). "Clowne Towne" could be Stewart's best song to date, as he stands back and assesses his own life over a simple, almost Oriental-sounding string arrangement, and a touching melody. He stands amidst the mess his life has become, and realizes it's a mess he's just going to have to live with, as he muses in the catchy chorus, "Clowne Towne No shelter / Clowne Towne no anything ... Clowne Towne no exit."
Stewart refuses to hold back on what will undoubtedly be the album's most controversial track, the spoken word piece "Support Our Troops OH! (Black Angels OH!)". Over a free form blast of ambient noise, screeches, and drones, he launches into a tirade against his country's military actions over the past year, sneering, "Did you know you were going to shoot off the top of a four year old girl's head and look across her car seat down into her skull and see into her throat?" Calling soldiers jocks who are "too stupid and too unmotivated to do anything else," he concludes bitterly, "Why should I care if you get killed." Musically, it sticks out a bit compared to the rest of the album, but despite his angry rhetoric, it's still in keeping with the theme of negative dominance, and like it or not, it's a powerful, passionate, provocative track.
As dismal as this album may seem, when you hear Stewart sing, "I can start listening, I can say Hi / I can feel something good," you can actually sense a tiny glimmer of hope, a pinhole sized light peeking out of the abyss. On "Mike", his elegy for his father, who committed suicide, Stewart lays his soul bare, confessing a remorseful son's darkest thoughts, "I feel I am not nice because sometimes it is hard for me to think something happy about you except for that dad, I love you and will always, always miss you," adding with a wink, "Pull my finger." Angry, desperate, and bleak, but this time coupled with a sense of hope and compassion, Fabulous Muscles is a major step forward for Jamie Stewart and Xiu Xiu.