Women as Lovers
(Kill Rock Stars; 2008)
By Craig Eley | 26 February 2008
I suffered a little death at the hands of Xiu Xiu. Yes, I mean that in the French way, le petit mort, the orgasm, or whatever it is that happens in the moments of musical ecstasy defined by shocking revelation, joy, desire, bewilderment. I was musically conservative, and in many ways still am; the world was new; I looked different in mirrors. This was years ago, when, late as usual, I joined the orgy of celebration for Fabulous Muscles (2004), lubricating myself with Jamie Stewart’s screams and squonky arrangements, wearing myself (and my roommates) out with repeated listens and endless discussions. It was locker room talk with the roles reversed, and I was proud of being totally ravished.
As le petit mort has always implied, this ejaculation is an ending more than a beginning, and now the little death I feel is one of repetition and exhaustion. As exciting as Women As Lovers is at times—perhaps his strongest since Fabulous Muscles—it’s something that Xiu Xiu lovers new and old have come to expect. The orgiastic pleasure and violence of Xiu Xiu’s work, his seditiousness and sensuality, the downright audaciousness of it all has been replaced. The danger of all the roofing shingles and knife play and abuse is that it might have thickened our skin; the fetish pleasures and dark ejaculations of the past have become rote masturbation. Open a new browser window, kids.
The reason that this is so frustrating—all kidding aside—is because I have long claimed (in conversations and in print) that Xiu Xiu’s work serves a political function that goes beyond the immediacy of the music. As I argued in my review for The Air Force (2006), Jamie Stewart’s subject matter, the actual words being formed by his so often written about whispers and screams, was “important” in the “traditionally” understood world of “white male indie rock.” As all of those quotes imply, I’m starting to question my position here, mainly because on this record Stewart feels so tired and his politics are so boring, especially in the album’s first half.
With a title harkening back to one of his best songs, I was thrilled to get to track five, “No Friend OH!” As people have rightly pointed out—most recently our own Joel Elliott—Xiu Xiu has always been a pop band with noise elements, and this track is perhaps the most symphonic they’ve ever constructed. An “Eye of the Tiger” guitar line, synthesized horns, and waves of the percussive metals that have been so crucial to the Xiu Xiu sound deliver, initially, on the promise I read into the title.
But lyrically the song is a total snooze. “Tony and Dan / You can’t hold hands / Down your street” is perhaps the most straightforward line Stewart has ever penned, and the song’s attempt at tenderness, love, and isolation doesn’t seem to fit the Architecture in Helsinki soundscape. The tragedy in the romance story here is merely age; in essence, it’s the kind of sentiment of that guides a song like Ben Folds’ “Fred Jones Pt. 2”: a very sad old man who can’t find love and satisfaction. Perhaps most startling, and indicative, is the fact that Stewart delivers the song’s “OH!” probably the most famous syllable he has ever screamed, like it was merely any other line. It sounds like he isn’t even trying.
At first I was hopeful that the soft “OH!” signaled a new turn for Stewart: parody and self-awareness. With a billion albums and guest appearances and split seven inches, Stewart has developed into one of the biggest personas in indie rock, and it speaks to the uniqueness of his band and the cohesiveness of their message that a typical Xiu Xiu review is becoming easier and easier to predict: whispers and screams, noisy pop (or is it poppy noise?), catharsis, intimacy, honesty, and damn if any other band sounds quite like this. It’s all true, so wouldn’t it be great if Stewart pulled one over on us, winked and said he was sick of being the heart-on-sleeve (come-on-lips?) troubador of the indie world? What if he was poking fun at himself? And how the hell else could you explain a cover of Queen and David Bowie’s “Under Pressure?”
Jamie Stewart cannot parody himself, of course, because he never parodied anything. His covers, like his originals, are oozing with what most critics and fans have always lauded as “earnestness,” but here it feels like indulgence. With Michael Gira playing Bowie to Stewart’s Freddie Mercury, there’s a question here of whether Stewart is totally immune to humor. In terms of sequencing the track actually rescues the album after the abominable “Guantanamo Canto” and the campfire-singalong-turned-brooder “F.T.W.” which, in keeping with the theme, is great to listen to and not worth thinking too hard about. The cover itself inexplicably cuts out the scatted vocals that in many ways define the song.
Surprisingly, it’s in this cover song that I feel Stewart at his most raw and revelatory, most committed to the weirdness and passion that has made his work so inspiring. It’s not lost on me, by the way, that this is a love album, and as such might lend itself to a more optimistic outlook on things. This is something I actually celebrated in The Air Force, which I still think is thematically stronger. When he shouts “Why can’t we give love that one more chance” it is among the most felt lines on the record. And since so much of Xiu Xiu’s work has asked us, explicitly, to “care for the people on the edge of night,” the song ends with a personal and emotional resonance that much of the album lacks.
“Under Pressure” also serves as a gateway into the album’s much more sinister second-half, which seems to abandon the pop structures and instrumentation to at least some degree. “Puff and Bunny” includes heartfelt pleas to a character named “Hot Pepper,” and “Master of the Bump,” which has Stewart proclaiming “I will never dance again,” is a guitar song that doesn’t devolve into noise. Both of the songs are creepy, moving, and interesting, if much less “fun” to listen to than some of the album’s earlier offerings.
In “The Leash,” Stewart hits most sharply on the album’s main themes of love, loss, and the military. The narrator here explicitly identifies as female, crying in the song’s last moments, “Oh ensign, I was your woman.” It’s a short song, one that seems to celebrate the recklessness of the narrator’s youth. It seems metaphoric for an older, different Xiu Xiu—one that is taking the blows rather than dishing them out. If Stewart’s narrator is a woman, and if women are lovers, is it fair to draw the conclusion? I’m not sure, but it seems to hold: Women As Lovers is a beautiful masturbation, and a little death for us all.