Review Summary: Don't worry mom.
Genres suck. I hate to be "that guy," in the sense that "oh, this band I really like is beyond description!" or something as cliche'd as that, but in the case of Xiu Xiu, there's really no easy label to pin on them. We live in an age of endless Joy Division and Television revivalism, and even though Xiu Xiu clearly take influence from post-punk (they even covered Joy Division's Ceremony!), it would be foolish to lump them into the "post-punk revival" of the early 2000s. For the sake of reviewing though, I will call them a post-punk band, which is loose at best. Calling them music at all can be loose at times. Enough of my rambling though; A Promise
is what the world of post-punk (haha!) needed.
Xiu Xiu's sound is a(n) (un)godly amalgamation of cling-clang percussion, buzzsaw synth work, dance-y rhythms that sound like hell, melodies that are either greatly overstated or understated, and Jamie Stewart's vocals that will make you rethink what "emotional" singing might be. Opener "Sad Pony Guerrilla Girl" is deceptive in many ways though, drawing us in with a pleasant guitar melody, before being joined by some fluttering synth work and Jamie's vocals. The moment Jamie comes in will trigger one of two reactions; immediate disgust and contempt, or immediate fascination and awe. Even better, what will really trigger those two reactions is the break, where a high-pitched noise comes in and crescendos, while Jamie makes noises below and claps his hands, or something, before going right back into the understated, yet anthemic chorus. This right here is perhaps the album's biggest strength; the ability to go from ugly to beautiful within seconds, in a litany of different ways.
I'm going to be quite frank and say I hated this album the first time I heard it. I found the vocals grating, the synths annoying, the melodies disgusting, and the overall product to just be pretentious and lost in itself. As I listen more and more though, this piece of work continues to reveal things to me. It's an album that gives me the feeling of just being completely, nakedly, stupidly alive and human. Moments like the sudden explosion of synths in "Apistat Commander," the seconds-long drop of all the instruments in "Sad-Redux-O-Grapher" where Jamie suddenly yells his lyrics, the way "Blacks" makes me want to dance away my fears and sadness more than any song ever over that beautifully-confused synth melody that only lasts like 10 seconds, or most of all, when Jamie just gets up to your ear on "Ian Curtis Wishlist" and begs us to understand what he's saying. Each and every song has something that keeps me coming back, and picking a favorite would be next to impossible based on all these qualities. There's not a single skip-worthy track on here; not even the nearly six-minute long cover of "Fast Car" by Tracy Chapman, where Jamie sounds like he's reading the song off of ultimate-guitar and stumbling through.
Is this album for everybody? Of course not. Is it even for a lot of people? Not even close. This is an album you really need to spend some time with before you'd even consider that Xiu Xiu is worth listening to. I spent at least two years of my life thinking Xiu Xiu were nothing but over-emotional trash, and I'm really glad I finally turned that around. It honestly warms my heart knowing that somebody had the guts to make an album this insane, and let the rest of the world hear it. I would never once say that Xiu Xiu are going to save music, but I do believe this is what Ian Curtis might've wanted. Enter this at your own risk, trust me. Someone once said that this was basically "Requiem for a Dream: The Album," and based on impact, this isn't false. I do love you, Jamie Stewart.