Take the test yourselves. Listen one by one to the 12 cuts on “Always,” Xiu Xiu’s latest work, and write down the feelings that the album gives you as you listen. Confusion, pain, pity, fear, anger? Now do the same thing with the images. War, madhouse, destruction, jail, torture? Welcome to Jamie Stewart’s own private universe. The American has spent the last ten years channelling his frustrations and desires into a wonderful, morbid proposal, whose final aim is to provoke a reaction in the listener, whether it is vomiting, an erection, or the most visceral repugnance. His discourse dynamites the conventions of Western thought and brings up uncomfortable debates about sex, the family, and violence.
In his eighth album, the singer and player of various instruments calls on the experience of Greg Saunier (Deerhoof), who takes Xiu Xiu’s sound extremism to the max through an intuitive, gaunt production. There are dark tales in which Jamie’s voice resounds and asphyxiates with piano and guitar solos as the only background ( “The Oldness,” “Factory Girl”), terrorist artefacts that alter the subconscious with the saturation of uncomfortable digital effects ( “I Luv Abortion,” “Gul Mudin,” “Born To Suffer”) and in the end some pieces ( “Hi,” “Smear The Queen”) come close to pop immediacy (understand this from the perspective of the character that were are talking about) which you could already sense in his two previous albums, “Dear God, I Hate Myself” (2010) and “Women As Lovers” (2008). The Californian confesses that the work of engineer John Congleton (Antony & The Johnsons, Explosions In The Sky) has been key to giving the album that final touch of “creativity to the limit,” although the longest shadow here is that of his usual sidekick, Angela Seo (voices, programming, and assorted devices).
The truth is that the tangle of terrifying canticles (one imagines good old Jamie reciting with his eyes open very wide, almost in a trance), techno rushes, and flashes of discordant electronic (call the sum of all this avant-pop) gets better every time you listen to it. When you click the mouse to put the album on for the fifth time, and those proclamations in favour of teenage abortion come back again (what would the gurus of “Sixteen and Pregnant” think? Do the people who watch MTV listen to Xiu Xiu?), along with those horrible stories about Afghan children shot down by inhuman Yankees, and those raving odes to incest (“your father was the first man who was inside of you,” you hear in “Black Drum Machine”)—you start to get a little into it. And you want to hear more, and you find your way to the hilarious cover he did of “Only Girl (In The World)” by Rihanna, included in the 7” “Daphny” (2011). And then they say that manic-depressives don’t have any sense of humour.