It’s become clear to me by now that Xiu Xiu’s Jamie Stewart can do pretty much anything he wants with sound. Gentle acoustic solo sets and exploratory noise freakouts with Oxbow’s Eugene S. Robinson are just two of the forms I’ve seen him take since the last time I paid close attention to an actual Xiu Xiu record (2008’s fine Women As Lovers, which featured a weirdly faithful cover of Queen and David Bowie’s ‘Under Pressure’). You see, it’s not that he has to make unsettling music – he can make any music he likes, the talented sod. It’s just that, more often than not, this is the music he likes making.
As Xiu Xiu records go though, this one is pretty characteristic, and it’s strongest at its start. ‘Archie’s Fades’ features Stewart singing like Scott Walker might after he’s just watched his house disappear in a landslide, over a beat that feels very much like something The Pop Group or Suicide would have been proud to call their own. The Rev/Vega influence continues in to ‘Stupid In The Dark’, a song for a dancefloor filled with the damned with an intro that encroaches so much on Suicide’s territory that it should probably be paying rent.
Vocals are kept largely to terrified mumbles, as if the subject being spoken about is so potentially catastrophic that Stewart can barely muster up the courage to enunciate the words properly. Catching snippets of dialogue only adds to the general feeling of malaise – it’s like hearing cries for help (‘El Naco’ has an urgency to the screams that sit atop the cyclical bell ringing that makes you feel like the rapture can’t come soon enough, if only to put poor Jamie out of his misery).
Vocals aside, pulsating industrial rhythms are the record’s defining feature, hammering everything in to place with ruthless efficiency. They work just great on ‘The Silver Platter’, which possesses an ability to unnerve that Nine Inch Nails could really do with rediscovering, but by ‘Cynthia’s Unisex’ have lost a bit of their – admittedly curious – charm through overuse. It all gets a bit much, but being battered round the head, one suspects, is the (blunt) point.
All the same, come the closing guitar squall of ‘Red Classroom’ (at least, I think that’s a guitar – it could be someone taking a chainsaw to a particularly stubborn tree), it’s hard not to feel somewhat relieved that it’s all over. This record sure is long, impossibly bleak, and largely devoid of the wry humour I love about so much of his best work (well, apart from ‘Black Dick’, depending on your reading of it – it does go “black dick, black dick, dick, dick, dick”, a lot). It’s a deliberately unpleasant hour-or-so that’s far easier to admire for its unshaken dedication to the exploration of ghastliness than it is to actually enjoy. I can’t say I’ll return to it often, but like the baseball bat under my bed, it’s nice to know it’s there for when I need it.