Everyone knows a pessimist – a lamenter of everyday life that can’t find the bright side of a desk lamp and then asks you to turn it off so it doesn’t hurt his eyes. Generally they are a guaranteed buzz-kill and the last person you want to listen to. Pessimist Jamie Stewart, however, is of a breed far beyond the realm of the gloomy cynic.
Better known as the creator of Xiu Xiu, Stewart broods and rages in his eighth studio album, Always, and dumps out fragments of a mind so fed up with the world, it’s endearing.
Stewart’s macabre subject matter weaves together bizarre threads of sorrow, apathy, filth, murder and virtually every negative reality in a manic-depressive episode set to music. Perpetually on the verge of tears, agony trembles through his voice, erupting occasionally into rage via psychotic moaning and yelling. The outbursts produce garbled groaning alongside abstract poetic rants, equally garbled.
Given the topics he covers in the album with bandmate Angela Seo, his tremulous voice and outbursts are not much of a surprise. In “Gul Mudin,” for instance, he fumes about the Maywand District murders in Afghanistan, where a group of American soldiers brutally murdered civilians, posed for photos with the corpses and kept fingers as trophies. The murders were real-life tragedies and an example of the evils and terror that man is capable of, but such atrocities deeply affect Stewart’s own ruminations, where they stew and boil over to his introspective tracks.
“A sliver of bone could get caught in your throat; well, silence is golden/ A shot of bone sticking out of your arm; well, blood is beautiful,” he bellows in “Hi,” the album’s opening track. Objectively speaking, when the “bright side” of a compound fracture is being able to see the blood, professional counseling might not be a bad thing. Then again, if he’s the only one affected, his fury could be construed as a wakeup call to humanity. Art was never meant to be PG.
Although bizarre and grotesque, the window Xiu Xiu opens into his decrepit world is infectious, in the same vein as a gore-addled horror flick – cringeworthy, but hard to turn off. It’s listenable too, thanks to band mate Angela Seo’s synthesized hooks and crunchy drum machines. In sync with the bipolar vocals, the melodies and ambience cut across several genres. From electro hooks to chaotic noise rock to weeping acoustic guitar, the duo clearly are no amateurs.
One minute, a slurring, sorrowful piano raises goosebumps and makes you want to curl up in a ball and stare at the ceiling; this is “The Oldness.” The next, an electro-pop hook sends you to an imaginary dance floor; it sounds like even Stewart may have found some lighthearted hope. But then you realize that you’re smiling and humming along with “I get up, get up, and the day is ruined again.” Gradually, you discover just how uncomfortable a smile can feel.
Always is not for listeners of exclusively feel-good music, though it does have its pop moments. Side effects of listening may include decreased appetite, nausea and severe pessimism. Chaotic noise tracks like “I Luv Abortion” may even provoke seizures, though that result is uncommon. But for open-minded listeners intrigued by the drastically weird, Xiu Xiu’s Always will exploit a morbid curiosity you never knew you had.
4 stars out of 5