Except for Jamie Stewart’s love of cuddly stuffed toys and equally cute kittens, the world according to Xiu Xiu is not pretty. "If your bed is a living hell, say hi / If you’ve poked out your eyes, say hi," he sings on the opening Hi, his invite to the lost, lonely and quite possibly self-harming conveyed via a deep vocal that sounds like the verge of a nervous breakdown. But persona trauma can also be political, as Factory Girl ("the sexual objectification and desperate existence of female Chinese migrant workers") confirms. Put it another way: if Morrissey saw misery and pain through others’ eyes rather than just his own solipsistic self-pity, and chose a musical soundtrack that was equal parts Joy Division, Antony Hegarty and Depeche Mode instead of Twinkle and The Polecats, you might end up with something close to Xiu Xiu.
This being the eighth Xiu Xiu (pronounced "shoe shoe") album – the follow up to 2010’s Dear God, I Hate Myself – you wonder why Stewart and his rotating cast of pals aren’t better known. But one spin of I Luv Abortion instantly explains why. Staccato beats and keys, squealing electronics, an in-your-face vocal that occasionally breaks into a sweaty scream, and that song title – well, it’s patently not Morrissey or anyone searching for mainstream acceptance. Stewart may have named the album partly after his hip hop-loving brother’s emotional dependence on Erasure’s song Always during a time of crisis and bereavement, but Xiu Xiu music has little time for Erasure-style sweetness. Instead, the arrangements can mirror Stewart’s searing honesty with a level of hysteria that will be offputting, even unlistenable, to some.
Yet in generous swathes Always is also one of Stewart’s most accessible albums. Once you’re immersed, there’s a gripping, chilling fascination that’s hard to shake. The Oldness recalls one of Perfume Genius’ piano ballads, while Factory Girl is similarly intense and delicate; elsewhere, Smear the Queen and Joey’s Song could singlehandedly launch the genre ‘Disco Inferno’. The closing Black Drum Machine is Stewart firmly on the other side; slow and impressionistic, strings alternating between dreamy and scraping and at one point the frontman gabbling "I’m sorry, I’m sorry," over and over before a swarm of electronics, like he’s been figuratively stabbed in the back. It’s brilliantly unsettling.
If hysteria is not your bag, and nor a song about "an Afghani teenage boy killed murdered for sport by American soldiers" (Gul Mudin), there’s always Adele, say, or even Morrissey. For those comforted by musical blood, sweat and tears that work equally well in a goth discotheque or bedroom solitude, say hi.
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