The Air Force
By Craig Eley | 14 September 2006
There is seemingly a fierce terror in exploration. Some case studies: Meriwether Lewis, back from his famed exploration of the Northwest section of the United States and commissioned to write a 12-volume work on the expedition, never put pen to paper. Apparently unable to capture his experiences in writing, he killed himself six months later. Robert FitzRoy, captain of the HMS Beagle which took Charles Darwin to the Galapagos Islands, killed himself five years after The Origin of Species was eventually published, gripped by madness and convinced that people should “believe God rather than man.” Of course, literature as well as history presents us with these characters as well, most notably the archetypal Kurtz, who becomes insane and power hungry in the “dark,” unmapped areas of Africa.
But wait: Jamie Stewart is not one of these dudes, he is the answer to them. He certainly could be seen as having a “heart of darkness,” but I’m not interested in crystal balling his suicide, especially since The Air Force makes it seem far less likely than some of the other efforts in his insanely deep back catalogue. But it is import to not lose sight of Stewart as a type of explorer—someone penetrating farther into the still-too unmapped terrain of directly challenging heteronormality in both life and music. In this way his explorations and subsequent terror (both literal and narrative) are unlike the stories above. Rather than tools of conquest over nature, or science, or non-white people, Xiu Xiu’s maps also become mirrors, reflections of the consequences of a society in which Stewart himself is still relegated to the outskirts.
This is not to needlessly label Xiu Xiu as “gay indie rock” (if it matters, he has said in interviews that he’s bisexual), but it is to caution against losing a certain kind of critical insight through the massive (and often passive) acts of listening that define the contemporary critic and many listeners. Jamie Stewart has said that his songs aren’t meant to shock, but how could they not? Throughout his prolific career he has earned a world of press on the explicitness of his lyrics in both their graphic violence (“I am going to cut open your forehead / with a roofing shingle”) and their ability to delve into the world of desires, repressions, persecutions, and fears, often in the same breath (“you became a faggot / dressed like a bunny / beating off nonstop / to the escort pages”). If these are not meant to shock, and, again quoting Stewart from interviews, “nothing is fictional,” then what are we to make of these words (and soundscapes) that are so unapologetically political, violent, erotic, harrowing, suicidal?
One way to do that is to wrestle with inconsistencies. Jamie Stewart himself is one example, constantly portraying himself lyrically as frail while in reality he’s a man boasting fabulous muscles. That contrast between his physical presence (meeting him, onstage) and the way he depicts his physicality in music is shocking, but like the marriage of suicidal tendencies to pop hooks that is the defining feature of The Air Force, this is not a paradox, since the world (especially the world through the lens of Xiu Xiu) is both beautiful and scary, filled with love and hate. And those things don’t have to be separate. After all, some people’s marriage is someone else’s amendment. Ultimately, this need for reconciliation may speak to the larger political imperatives that Xiu Xiu records suggest.
What I am getting at here is that Xiu Xiu serves, on at least one level, as the voice of the unseen, unexplored horrors of challenging social norms, and as such is one of few bands that has political, artistic, and social importance outside of the traditionally insular, straight, male world of indie rock—one who simply cannot be considered a cool band (or a novelty act) because of gamelan and synths and screaming. Fortunately, The Air Force has both concept and practice to spare, since it is catchy, frank, challenging, beautiful, terrifying, erotic, and nightmarish. In other words, it has all of the elements that make it a good “record,” (ultimately how I arrived at the above score), but to look at it as just a record is to do violence to the politics that Xiu Xiu (whether they want to or not) represent. Either way, The Air Force has a lot of good songs on it, and I’ll do my best to describe a few of them.
Opener “Buzz Saw” starts with a Waits-esque piano line, and Stewart’s characteristic wavering whispers. Of course, the cymbals, jarring percussion, and abrasive programming soon enter the mix, over Stewart singing about the shit he sings about: “And don’t say teach me / before you get tied up for this first time / I’m not like that.” The whole affair is actually pretty mellow, chimes and piano and what sounds like hitting a trashcan, giving the composition a more organic feel than the 8-bit programming and noise that defines the rest of the album, especially next track “Boy Soprano.” The yearning chorus of “take me away from here” is complimented by the soundtrack of hallucinating in an arcade, appropriate for the youth of the song’s subject matter.
“Hello from Eau Claire” is the long-awaited debut of Caralee (Little Panda?) McElroy on lead vocals, and she delivers a fantastically understated performance—she actually sounds both untrained and nervous. This makes the effect of the song, which is essentially about gender betrayal, all the more powerful since it eschews Stewart’s more direct confrontation. Her opening lines suggest the inferiority she feels in the relationship: “I know it’s stupid to dream / but you might think of me as a man.” She asserts herself by listing things she can do on her own, however, by song’s end that same formula includes elements of self-loathing which also come to define her: “I can humiliate myself to your face / I can weep through my own midnights.”
“Vulture Piano” is the show-stopper here, with a great chorus and a screaming part that makes “I Luv the Valley (Oh!)” look tame. But the more interesting of the sing-alongs is “Bishop, CA,” which is all original Nintendo RPG in its musical theme (I’m thinking of “Solstice,” but I don’t know if I’m right), and very grim incest themes. After someone’s Daddy “rapes them silly” towards the song’s end, our narrator, sung by Stewart, “leans [his] head against the refrigerator / crying for the stupid world we share.” From there the song moves immediately into a soaring conclusion, with various combinations of “walla” and “hey.” Again, we’re forced to grapple with the competing interests of darkness and light. Xiu Xiu’s world is a place where dreams and horrors live side-by-side, the awake and dream states each become ideals for each other, and the reconciliation of these seeming inconsistencies is not just a job for aesthetes but a moral and political imperative. How can people who love each other be called evil? How can helpless children be raped? Our world is filled with these inconsistencies.
“P.J. in the Streets of London,” uses a similar guitar effect and pattern as “Clown Towne,” and features two people “just trying to make sense of it.” The recurring theme here is that the world of the people in this song is real, and problematic, and unchanging. In the simple language of print through which we all wade, Stewart reminds us “sadness is still in print.” And it will continue to be, but we can still remember that each act of listening, writing, or speaking has the potential to be a political act.