The album cover of Always spells out Xiu Xiu’s M.O. — and lays down the gauntlet — about as cleanly and succinctly as any song Jamie Stewart has written in the past 10 years: a bright white clinical HD close-up, a beautiful letterform tattoo inscribed on someone’s pasty flesh. You’re too close for comfort, and that’s exactly where they want you.
As a performer and songwriter, Stewart has fashioned himself into a conduit for a seemingly bottomless well of human misery that inspires fierce loyalty or total alienation, sometimes both within the course of a few seconds. His tremulous baritone can wring hysterical portent out of every syllable, and his lyrics invariably find their subjects in states of mental and emotional disarray that range from bleakly familiar to almost unimaginably dire. On Always, grief, suicide, sexual humiliation and worse are rendered in a series of dizzying close-ups, as fractured as the broken lives they describe.
The specifics of these scenarios often derive from events in the lives of the band and their loved ones, but Xiu Xiu’s purview isn’t strictly confessional or therapeutic. Stewart describes his songwriting as documentary in nature, intent on doing a different kind of work. It’s testing the limits of our empathy, daring us to look away, asking us why. At its best, it’s both cathartic and transformative, harnessing the transformative power of empathy to politicize the personal and personalize the political.
Musically, Xiu Xiu’s palette continues to grow more unabashedly pop, or at least as pop-like as all their propensity jarring, disorienting dissonance will allow. Thanks in part to two recent additions to the group’s changeable lineup, keyboardist/percussionist Angela Seo and producer Greg Saunier (of Deerhoof), the music’s fractured electronic textures are busier and brighter, adding shades of 21st century digital anomie and the cold comfort of supersaturated, Uncanny Valley cuteness to the group’s unhinged virtuosity.
The stuttering synth-pop of “Hi” sounds like it was born in some bleak corner of the Internet. “Beauty Towne” is as catchy as it is effervescently nauseating. Elsewhere, “I Luv Abortion” is a harrowing rant that raises the bar for intensity in a Xiu Xiu performance, while Stewart’s duet with Carla Bozulich on “Smear the Queen” is a thing of monumental holy terror.
“Gul Mudin” addresses a 15-year-old Afghani boy brutally murdered by U.S. soldiers, while “Factory Girls” describes the desperate lives of female migrant workers fueling China’s massive industrial manufacturing complex. “What can I do for you? Nothing but point to lbfm.biz,” is Stewart’s bleak summation. His subsequent exhortation to “place your phone on your pillow and stroke it like a dead kitten” is absurd and unexpected as it is poignant.
Singular, and singularly difficult, Xiu Xiu continue to wrestle with some of art’s most difficult questions — pain and beauty; the pleasures and dangers of intimacy; retaining one’s humanity in the face of loss, tragedy and incomprehensible evil — often with humor and humanistic warmth. In the case of Always, score one for the loyalists.