A Boy Named Xiu
8 years since their debut Knife Play, Xiu Xiu have, in consistent and workman like fashion, created a catalogue of songs that embody freedom as an explosion of passion in all it’s overwhelming and counter logical incarnations. Long time listeners, and I realized this while listening to Dear God I Hate Myself, have just come to expect that literally, from moment to moment, anything can happen in their music. Sure, they have themes, obsessions, whatever you want to call them (radical empathy, electro acoustic freak outs, new gothic brooding, death and despair, total emotional nakedness, clicky rambling, chiming percussion, naming people in their songs, humor, and sound collages) but to my ears they’re never retreading this stuff, they’re just filing, refining, and exploding their work until they arrive at the next evolutionary step, whatever it might be. What I mean is, despite their consistency and development as musicians, each of their albums still sounds new, but actually so does each second of each song.
A line by line reading of their catalogue reveals a band that is particularly adept at importing whatever that thing is that makes them feel so vital to suit a variety of circumstances, musical and otherwise. One of the first indie bands for whom the question of their music being electronic or acoustic was just so beside the point, Xiu Xiu’s work ranges from totally acoustic strummed guitar ballads to up beat electronic pop. They’ve created tracks that sound like musique concrete influenced new classical, as well as anthemic indie rock. It’s seamless for them, but for most bands this type of breadth would just not work. Their thing is, the thing that makes this work for them, is that they have this mood, this point of view that is so strong / stringent that no matter what they are playing they can’t help but sound like themselves. I mean, you just know when you are hearing something by Xiu Xiu. It’s all about Jamie Stewart (front man, mastermind, etc…). Sure he brings in collaborators in a nearly compulsive fashion, but it’s his joie de vivre (and, er…mort as well) that is the emotional and, one assumes, sonic center of Xiu Xiu,. His musical output just has this ambience that veils most everything Xiu Xiu does. It all falls on the south side of a nervous breakdown. Despite the lyrics being pervy, angrily leftist, hurt, wounded and needy, Jamie Stewart just usually sounds like someone who is barely holding it together, in every sense of the word.
Most of the tracks on Dear God I Hate Myself lean toward the electronic end of the electronic-acoustic axis. Famously, the album uses korg software for Nintendo DS for much of the programming and songwriting and there is a feeling throughout the album of time being locked in place, as if an invisible metronome marks time in a silent current running beneath the songs. This is a change from their last two full lengths which really had this band in a room chemistry and sound. Coming midway through the album, Secret Motel – a vibrant, collage-like,electronic track – showcases this. It reminds me of the soundtrack Tomandandy did for the film of The Rules of Attraction, it has this free wheeling explosive quality with multiple layers of blips and bleeps crashing into chord changes that anchor it with emotional resonance. This Too Will Pass Away (For Freddy) managed to sound like retro 80s new wave pop whilst also sounding like club-lite laptop techno. Chocolate Makes You Happy is a barn raising electro disco track (via DS) that really kinda sounds like a Pet Shop Boys song minus that British pop star misanthropy thing they have going on.
The thing about Dear God I hate Myself is it’s, in many ways, Xiu Xiu as microchasm. What I mean is, sonically at least, it demonstrates the full scope of what they are capable of. The title track comes exactly midway through the album and is, in so many ways, is its core. Drum Machines stutter between dancey patterns and driving beats while an acoustic guitar is strummed over a back drop of machines that sound like they are fretting until they’re fried. I forecast this track will become eternally inseparable from the video (widely available where you watch videos for free) in which Angela Seo self-induces repeated purging, while Jamie Stewart’s voice incants about despair, and er… self hatred to the titular monotheistic entity. Oh yeah, he sits in the frame, half off screen eating chocolate. It’s compelling as all get out. And it does so many things at once, it means so much that’s beyond description, that whatever is triggered in the viewer is just really, in the end, moving. When he sings ‘who the F-word are you?’ it just comes together so much. Later on, The Fabrizio Palumbo Retaliation sounds like an anxiety attack in progress, with its piano theme repeating, growing, shifting, and evolving, but never changing. Hyunhye’s Theme sounds so emotionally wrecked that the series of abstract sounds that overlay the picked and plucked acoustic guitar end up like gutted voices that have forgotten how to speak. When Stewart sings ‘Overwhelmed at your desk/ Weeping for your parents’ it sounds like the ends of the world, basically.
Overall Dear God I Hate Myself is Xiu Xiu’s poppiest, most willing album in a while. It’s accessible and downright festive at times. Drones have been replaced by skitters and throbs. It feels like co-producers Stewart and Greg Saunier (of Deerhoof) have chosen to re-invigorate Xiu Xiu’s sound as opposed to letting them settle into comfortable middle age. Whether it was the songwriting or the production, I dunno, but there is a sense of structure through out the album, a sense of the band just really going all out as they hit the chorus. While they’ve always played with the idea of what the pop song is/can mean in a post pop world, they’ve never really taken to the verse/chorus/verse structure like they have here. Opener Gray Death is a perfect example that manages to recall mid 80s British imports that were collectively called college rock (think the album Deep by Peter Murphy). Later on the chorus of Falkland Rd. sounds like, I swear, The Mission U.K.
Jamie Stewart sings in this way that’s a cross between crooning and fawning. When he looses control he’s unafraid to let his freak flag fly. As a lyricist he combines the most naked, emotionally hyperconscious lyrics with specific details that spiral into a heady mix of psychic fucked-up ness. In Hyunhye’s Theme, a loose narrative re: lonely legal scholar gives way to talk about slacks and shoes. In the aforementioned Gray Death, Stewart internally escalates befuddled rage until he shrieks: when will it end, when will it end this sopping wet towel of stupidity? In Stewart’s lyrics, failed grandiosity and impotent rage give way to more rage, to more sadness, they give away to an abyss, but they keep giving out of devotional empathy with the world.
I’m not sure that Xiu Xiu will win over any new fans with Dear God I Hate Myself, but they’re certainly not going to lose any either. As a band they’re basically beyond that anyway, right? I mean their quality of output has been so good, over so many releases that like them or not, you really have to appreciate them for what they are: reports from a fragile, flawed psyche interacting with an oppressed and disturbed world. In other words, they crush you with how crushed they are.