So you’re a freak. You’re a queer in a world full of right-wing lunatics and jocks who want you to die. You recoil in horror at the exploitation, destruction, macho war mongering, sexism and racism which exist all around you. Bad things have happened to your friends and family. You were bullied at school. You have self-esteem issues. You are a musical genius. What do you do? In the case of Xiu Xiu’s principle songwriter Jamie Stewart, you put your bleeding heart on your sleeve, set it alight to music and watch it burn.
The broad Xiu Xiu agenda is set out on the first track and first single off Always, ‘Hi’: “If you’re wasting your life, say hi/If you are alone tonight, say hi/If you wish you should die, say hi-hi, hi-hi”. It’s a call to arms for lonely fuck ups, fuelled by amphetamine beats. It gets more creative in warped imagery as it continues (“If you have poked out your eyes say hi/If when you open your arms Ferdinand gores you in the chest”), and eats itself at the climax.
There is a musical and lyrical fearlessness to Jamie Stewart’s creations which make Xiu Xiu’s music a thousand times more effective than the music of most people with guitars and synths and low self-esteem. Musically Xiu Xiu blend post punk, techno, synth pop, choral music and classical, never going easy on the percussion. They are not self-obsessed. Stewart casts his eye far wider than the sphere of his own personal misery. Not atypical harrowing Xiu Xiu subject matter is found in ‘Gul Mudin’, a song about a teenage Afghani boy murdered for sport by American soldiers. In this track Stewart’s vocals sound like a drunken opera singer caught in an electronica gunfight. Which is amazing by the way.
The provocatively titled ‘I Luv Abortion’ is probably the most unsettling track on the album but nonetheless utterly compelling as Stewart screams wildly, “There are too many things I cannot be for youuuuu… When I look at my thighs I see death/When I look at my thighs I see death”. The music gets more off beat, disturbing and complex, with techno beats, brass and the barking of dogs creating nightmarish imagery that it’s hard switch off. Definitely not one to listen to before you go to the clinic, but still recounting someone’s experience of abortion as a personal one and therefore not the business of right wing pro-life crazies.
In the duet ‘Honeysuckle’ Angela Seo’s vocal provides a perfect contrast to Stewart’s bruised melodramatic voice. In comparison Seo’s vocals sound almost blank and emotionless, yet still subtly fractured and damaged. The combination could break your heart. The tune is upbeat, breezy and melodic, but the lyrics are embedded with despair. It could be sung from a hospital bed on the edge of breakdown: “They have told you you’ve been lucky but nothing has changed”. And yet there’s something empowered-sounding about the way the pair sing, "I’m gonna lie back down and ask for nothing" as though this is a form of resistance. On ‘Smear the Queen’ Xiu Xiu turn their attention to a horrific gay bashing: “Throw your arms around my throat/A brick in the small of my back/Smear the queen/They bashed his teeth in/Held his throat till he passed out”, but in its unhinged musical wildness the song sounds like life itself.
What Xiu Xiu demonstrate throughout Always, is the way in which they can lay down so starkly how terrible life can be and how fucked up one can feel and create something amazing, angry, political, fierce and defiant out of all of it.
But I do believe that Xiu Xiu are like marmite and there is a school of thought that will always regard them as being too angsty, self-indulgent and relentless. The other school is demonstrated on the cover of Always, they are the ones who get the name of the band tattooed onto their skin. OK, maybe I’m being a bit too black and white, but if I have to choose I’ll be out back with some ink and a needle.
9Len Lukowski's Score