By Conrad Amenta | 19 March 2012
Subjecting Jamie Stewart’s public catharsis to the pithy whiles of music criticism seems insensitive. Just yesterday a friend and I were talking about Xiu Xiu’s ability to write undeniably catchy music, and how 2006’s The Air Force was undeservedly ignored, and how we’d completely forgotten about 2010’s Dear God, I Hate Myself, and how vastly different the live performances can be from one tour to the next. (The last I saw Stewart was tinkering on a Nintendo DS. The time before that I was pummeled by an enormous and intricate drum set with the largest ride cymbal I’ve ever seen. Before that it was Autoharp for Everyone.) My friend and I talked about liking Xiu Xiu’s aesthetic the way we talk about liking any old thing—shoes, a plant, a California Raisins poster. Then I listened to “The Oldness” and its line “Your father was the first man inside of you,” and remembered that Xiu Xiu is also a very personal sort of therapy, both for Stewart and many of his listeners, and that there’s just no way to place this project alongside whatever other records are out this week. To do so would be to deny some basic humanity on display here, barer and more vital, as ever it is when we’re talking Xiu Xiu.
Which is to say that Xiu Xiu complicates my tendency towards cynical pop cultural analysis, some higher functioning but largely passive impulse that says that everything is a shtick, nothing is sincere, and so we should talk with equal seriousness about both torturous confession and sports, or Lana Del Rey, or Pogs. Xiu Xiu makes it difficult to find meaning in truly unmeaningful shit. This fact is denied or ignored across a spectrum of reviews; that this is Stewart’s eighth record as Xiu Xiu, and that he’s spent the better part of a decade tirelessly returning to the same small towns and concrete rooms, has somehow resulted in Stewart’s lyrics becoming comparable to Clinic’s surgical garb. What reviews I read of Xiu Xiu records tend to be, in a nutshell: “This record has the following sounds, which are different from the last record in the following ways, and there are also, you know…those lyrics.” It isn’t really fair to feign desensitization to this shit, even if it is somewhat understandable—who really wants to meditate on “Your father was the first man inside of you”? But we should. Because if Jamie Stewart ever stops having the audacity to sing lines like that, indie music is going to be a weaker, diluted space for it, and its headlong rush to become just another niche genre in the specialized spaces of internet commerce will be unimpeded.
Xiu Xiu is a project that helps us to understand how completely unimportant music has become for those of us who aren’t using it as a means to grapple with something. It’s taken me years of listening to Xiu Xiu to basically own up to the fact that how Jamie Stewart is singing is meaningful in a way that is not for me, that I can’t completely understand, and that I am necessarily on the outside of. Songs that deal with sexual violence should not ever be subject to my capricious and wholly irrelevant taste. I guess what I’m saying is that maybe I’m not the right person to review a Xiu Xiu record, though I don’t know who would be, and even if I did they would probably prefer to keep it to themselves. After all, what Stewart does in making this subject matter performative is unbelievably brave, certainly braver than what most of us are capable of. It’s a salve to some, a confrontation to others. Knowing that I can’t ever know the real spiritual core of Xiu Xiu, I continue to enjoy it immensely as an aesthetic experience, and to learn what I can from how it makes my drama obsolete.
“Hi” probably sounds like a parody of Xiu Xiu to everyone except those people included in its roll call. “Factory Girl,” which includes a Chinese child laborer in the Xiu Xiu family, can’t help but also put an uncomfortable question to the listener—where was that handbag made, anyway? As always, if Xiu Xiu makes you uncomfortable, it probably has more to do with you than with Jamie Stewart. It’s confrontation with a purpose, which truly undermines assumptions and tendencies in a vital way.
And so here’s the review that no one is begging for but is the least of what this record deserves. Because it’s at least as good a record as every other excellent Xiu Xiu record this decade, and that deserves some recognition: Jamie Stewart remains one of indie music’s most resonant and skillful writers. For every song like “I Luv Abortion,” that I don’t feel I have even the smallest right to write about, there’s a “Joey’s Song,” which maybe I also don’t have a right to write about but I can say bursts beautifully with propulsion and melody, unfolding as if from the center of itself. Always is a self-evident artifact: it appears with as little fanfare and a gracious quality as we’ve come to expect from an important musician, and maybe even have started to take for granted. It’s not for me to rate this record, to drag it into discussions about what’s cool. Only you can listen to it and find out if you’re on the inside or the outside.