The idea that beauty can be extracted from suffering is a bristling comfort, but a comfort nonetheless. Jamie Stewart has mastered this alchemic process in his 15-year post as Xiu Xiu founder and frontman. As we await impending doom – perhaps a nuclear fiasco, the severing of civil rights, or xenophobic federal doctrines – the thought that artistic expression has always withstood tragedy is a bite-sized bit of optimism. In a way, Xiu Xiu’s music is an anthem for this tiny silver lining.
Xiu Xiu’s latest record FORGET pulses with the blood of creative perseverance despite despair. Stewart summons a broad palette of emotion throughout, with the help of Xiu Xiu’s Angela Seo and Shayna Dunkelman, as well as appearances by Deerhoof’s Greg Saunier, Charlemagne Palestine, performance artist Vaginal Davis and more. What some have dismissed as “exasperating” and “predictable” is in fact a dynamic and stimulating work, straddling the gamut of Xiu Xiu’s sonic potential.
FORGET kicks off in a brash way, with crass rap snippets by Enyce Smith on opening cut “The Call.” This jolt of agitation displaces us before the Xiu Xiu-typical gothic fog has even rolled in. Stewart’s gloomy croon glides over us, recalling Peter Murphy of Bauhaus – its sex appeal justifying its dreary malevolence. Smith’s snarling raps weave throughout “The Call,” adding provocative discordance. Though the effect might not work on paper, it is successful in sound.
Despite being the record’s most melodic, even uplifting track, “Wondering” triumphs as Xiu Xiu’s most strident “fuck you;” defying their own experimental legacy with a glittering pop song. Only Xiu Xiu could write a song so infectiously catchy and dance-enhancing that you don’t realize the words you are singing along with…namely: “Down on your knees/Swallow defeat.” It may be muffled, distorted, and strange, but Xiu Xiu’s unconventional production doesn’t rob the track of any sweetness. Without a scrap of hyperbole, one might call “Wondering” among the best pop songs ever written.
It’d be hard to find another band that could inject this much variety into a single record, let alone an entire career the way Xiu Xiu has. Their leap from “Wondering” to the following cut “Get Up” is a classic example of their versatility. Where “Wondering” is no doubt a dance number, “Get Up” is a drowsy ballad akin to Cocteau Twins with its breathy synths and climbing arpeggios. But it isn’t all dream pop appeal – Stewart channels his inner game show host when he shouts, “Rise from the dead!” This is one small example of the impeccable, fleshed-out production throughout FORGET; its soundscape inhabited by so many deliberate and well-placed details.
Aside from “Wondering,” the highpoint of FORGET is the frantic and visceral “Jenny GoGo,” which pairs Stewart’s darker side against his own fragility – while somehow remaining a fabulous dance track. The production on “Jenny GoGo” is far more gritty than “Wondering,” but no less intricate. Stewart’s vocals volley between frail whispers and Suicide-like shrieks that split the frenzied air. If you dig the work of Alan Vega and Martin Rev, Fad Gadget, or Einstürzende Neubauten, this one’s for you.
FORGET’s most disparate song is the eight-minute closer, “Faith, Torn Apart,” which commences with chapel bells before slipping into a gloomy and sinister rejection of piety. Demonic voices, haunting chants, and atonal synths warble and hypnotize before Vaginal Davis reads a closing poem, presenting herself as a child of a war-torn country:
“…My bindi has been rubbed to the side/My frown is for always/My family will never see me again/My goofy jokes hide my goofy damnation/My giggles excuse what just happened/My tears and my drool are all the same/My fear is for one and all/My dead-end childhood is just beginning…”
“Faith, Torn Apart” takes more time to digest than the rest of the record, but is all the more rewarding once its played a few times.
Is the most remarkable thing about Xiu Xiu their ability to master and subvert the pop song? Is it their ability to maintain our attention after 15 years of intrigue? Or is it their devotion to exploring the depths of sound, humor, and human emotion – no matter how terrifying? Surely, it’s a greasy, sweet, curdled, and bloody blend encompassing all of the above.