In high school I made a stop-motion movie that portrayed an orange and a banana getting to know one another and then proceeding to have intercourse. For the soundtrack, I chose Xiu Xiu. I wanted the movie to convey some sort of emotional weight and the wailings of Jamie Stewart went a long way toward achieving that. Watching the movie now it is clear how ridiculous it is; but the Xiu Xiu soundtrack is still just as potent. Composed mostly of songs from Fabulous Muscles, it still confounds, oppresses, entices, and ultimately forces the listener to ask: what torture has been wrought on the person who made this?
Ten years after the release of their first album, Xiu Xiu, and specifically Jamie Stewart, is still intent on using music as a way to articulate all of the emotional torment that life has to offer. On Always, the band continues to do so alongside driving percussion, industrial synths, and sweeping melodies. This record may be as accessible as Xiu Xiu gets (and, I suppose, as accessible as any band gets that has songs called “I Luv Abortion”). Not that accessibility is what they are going for. On the contrary, I would say that Stewart, the creative force behind and the only consistent member of the band, has made a career out of making music that, while exceedingly well crafted, is innately uncomfortable. He is not aiming to make music that serves as a warm background for an evening meal. Rather, the hair on your neck should stand up. You should feel just a slight amount of the frustration that seems to underlie every line he sings.
The opening track, “Hi”, is a call to arms for anyone that can relate to Stewart’s outlook. Over sharp, stabbing synths Stewart sings “if there is a whole in your head say hi/ if you are stitching your wrists say hi….if your bed is a living hell say hi/ if you have poked out your eyes say hi.” This sets the tone for a record that is heart wrenching, dark, and, at times, poppy—in the most ironic way possible.
The catchiness of the early tracks, “Joey’s Song” and “Beauty Towne”, soon gives way to the grating “I Luv Abortion”. Stewart sounds like he is trapped in a cell, screaming in exasperation through the air vent. In his painfully sarcastic tone, he sings “when I look at my thighs I see death/ it’s great I love abortion”. Assuming there is a point to Stewart’s provocation, I think the song is a bold, but ultimately disturbing, attempt to explore the brutal mental ramifications of an abortion. Some will find it abhorrent, others will champion it; and in the end that’s the point.
Stewart’s music may begin with his own emotional difficulties but the scope of Always is far broader. Political subjects are broached as only Xiu Xiu can broach them; by exposing their grotesque underbelly with no reservations. “Gul Mudin” tells the story of an Afghani boy that is murdered by the American military, apparently just because they can. On “Smear the Queen” Stewart graphically recounts the beating of a gay child, singing “throw your belt around my neck/ a brick in the small of the back/ smear the queen they bash his teeth in with an elbow cast”. And this all sung to an alluring melody, making it all the more difficult.
Always, while undeniably distinctive, also invites comparison to Antony Hegarty, Scott Walker, Carey Mercer, Depeche Mode, and The Smiths. I suppose if you took all those artists and put them in a blender with a tormented, gay high school kid you might be somewhere close to Xiu Xiu. But probably not.