While mainstream rock 'n' roll music continues to weave its spell on the masses in its myriad forms, whether it's protest music, a form of high art, a form of tacky pop art, or just plain fun party music, there's always been a small group of albums huddled away in a murky corner of the rock pantheon, a sullen, miserable lot whose only raison d'être is to just sit there and be introspective and morose. Yes, I'm talking about that ever-so desolate subgenre called the "Dark Night of the Soul" albums. Emotional, self-deprecating, and tearful, these albums are just as vital to rock music as any other, more popular style, and every serious music fan owns at least a couple of these wonderfully dreary mopefests, whether it's The Velvet Underground's self-titled third album, Joni Mitchell's Blue, Nick Drake's Pink Moon, American Music Club's terrific albums from the early '90s, Nine Inch Nails' The Downward Spiral, Beck's 2002 album Sea Change, or the mother of all Dark Night of the Soul albums: Neil Young's masterful Tonight's the Night.
Oakland, California band Xiu Xiu (pronounced "shoe shoe") want a part of that action. Led by a prolific, yet highly disturbed man named Jamie Stewart, who is quoted as being influenced by "Henry Cowell, Joy Division, Detroit techno, The Smiths, Takemitsu, Sabbath, Gamelan, Black Angels, and Cecil Taylor," Xiu Xiu are only less than three years old, yet have already emerged as the undisputed masters of introspective, creepy, noise-pop. And if that weren't enough, they're named after the 1999 film Xiu Xiu: The Sent-Down Girl (a downright depressing movie in its own right), and their new album has an extremely disturbing cover photo of a naked Asian guy kneeling on a bed, holding a doll upside down. Okay, so they have a deranged frontman, a very apt moniker, and a frightening album cover. So what's the music like?
Like nothing you have ever heard before, my friend. These folks would send emo kids scurrying under their bedsheets. If Tiny Tim was a clinically depressed smackhead with major obsessions with Tom Waits' Bone Machine, Einstürzende Neubauten, the Residents, and Ian Curtis's darker fare, that wouldn't even be halfway to fully describing their sound. Basing each song on minimalist acoustic guitar or piano chords, Xiu Xiu throw in various influences, such as cut-up style beats and tape loops, electronic screeches, clanky percussion, and even sounds that echo a Javanese gamelan orchestra, making for a desolate, hauntingly spare musical arrangement that perfectly punctuates Stewart's singing, which ranges from whispers and whines, to all-out, anguished wails.
Yet underneath all the noise, all the emoting, are some very well-crafted songs, and Xiu Xiu's new album, A Promise, is loaded with them. The harrowing "Sad Pony Guerilla Girl" features a mournful, folky acoustic guitar and funereal chimes, as Stewart croons in his wobbly tenor about an adulterous relationship in some serious trouble, singing from a woman's point of view: "You say that I am your secret love/You say to be quiet but/I want to tell the whole world . . . We do it in the back of my little car/Pull up my pants and fix my bra/Go on home to your kids." Right then, as a tape loops backwards, in the background you hear the sound of flesh being slapped, harder and harder, creating an extremely uneasy feeling in the listener, as Stewart perhaps mimics a battered woman who still clings to her abusive lover, singing the mantralike chorus of "I like my neighborhood/I like my gun," as if in denial. "Walnut House" contains the sound of a harmonium and a plaintive piano melody, as well as a hint of sadomasochism ("Shaking at the end of a cord/My leather daddy dancing very near"), as the song dissolves in Stewart's repeated cries of, "Don't worry, mom." The annoyingly titled "20,000 Deaths for Eidelyn Gonzales, 20,000 Deaths for Jamie Peterson" possesses more of a techno influence, as well as some of Stewart's more darkly comical, esoteric lyrics ("Awful is all/Awful like cookie").
It gets even better. Or worse, depending on how you react to this album. At the core of "Apistat Commander", beneath all the cacophony, is an excellent pop song, exploding midway through with a sound best described as New Order as performed by The Addams Family, with the surprisingly catchy chorus of, "All that you left/You left for someone/All of this hurt that's wilted off/Oh this relief, it's the oddest thing/Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God." Meanwhile, the album's emotional intensity is encapsulated perfectly in "Sad Redux-O-Grapher". Stewart sings about more relationship problems: "I saved up to take him out at night/He said the restaurant was all wrong . . . I made him a present/It was a photograph of me." He then immediately emits a wail that's the most intensely painful sound we've heard on record in years: "He said it did not cost me anything!!!" After a brief silence, the song concludes with a heartbreaking coda of strings and synths, giving you a chance to catch your breath after having been stopped dead in your tracks. What steals the album, though, is the emotionally shattering cover of Tracy Chapman's folk hit "Fast Car". You can hear the desperation in Stewart's guitar playing, as he sadly strums the same riff over and over again for nearly six minutes, and that desperation is doubled in his singing, Stewart sounding on the brink of tears when he reaches the lines, "And your arm felt nice wrapped around my shoulder/And I had a feeling that I belonged/And I had a feeling I could be someone, be someone, be someone."
By the end of the album, you're hoping for some kind of lifeline, some hint of optimism to lift you out of this abyss of misery, but as it ends with a song called "Ian Curtis Wish List", you quickly realize there's little to no hope. Stewart's self-absorption reaches its peak, and tests your patience, as he prattles on like a drunken idiot, howling, "Will you ever bleat out/'DO YA LUV ME, JAMIE STEWART?!'" He follows up that line with a snide, "I'm . . . just . . . kidding!" that makes you think that he's not kidding at all, and you imagine that he's probably off to slit his wrists for the tenth time.
A Promise is difficult to sit through, emotionally draining, and is bound to give you nightmares if you listen to it late at night, but when it comes to truly dark, introspective records, this is a near-masterpiece, the best one we've been privy to since The Downward Spiral nine years ago. It's so sad, so murky, so frightening, that it's almost life-affirming, in that you now know that there's at least one person who has managed to feel worse than you can ever feel.