Review Summary: A list of things that you have convinced yourself that you want to have happen, but you know that are never going to happen.
Jamie Stewart's rage on a song like "Don Diasco" is the only possible way a Xiu Xiu record could commence. It's the only conceivable way the band could begin their run as one of the most divisive groups of the burgeoning post-punk revival of the aughts, and with 2002's Knife Play
, Stewart and company engage in a raging war against themselves. A cacophonous littering of glitched electronics and a smattering of percussion dominates songs like "Diasco," "Luber," and "I Broke Up (SJ);" but what makes an album like Knife Play
so compelling is the lengths its creators are willing to go for their art – nothing out of the ordinary, really – but what is horrifying about this is the inevitability that these songs are much more powerful than you'd believe upon first glance. See, Xiu Xiu have a way of making fun of themselves and their preposterous ways of translating their messages and their meanings to an audience that could never understand them without proper coercing. How else could Jamie Stewart get away with a song like "Hives Hives" and its chorus "A-I-D-S H-I-V / I cannot wait to die / Can't you tell?" without the emotionally gripping delivery that mistakenly morphs from the off-key warblings of Robert Smith and the silky smooth croon of Bryan Ferry into the ghastly moan that Jamie Stewart is now know best for?
Xiu Xiu evolved from the 2000 dissolution of Stewart's former band Ten in the Swear Jar; with the band's founding immediately after Swear Jar's split, Stewart took to writing music that bordered on self-parody as much as it did sincerity and tragedy, and Knife Play
is the finest example of what Stewart could do with the multitude of subjects he had stashed away, no matter how absurd they were. Write a song about child abuse: Stewart did so with "Luber;" a song about demoralization and another about the complete self-destruction of one's mind: Stewart wrote "Suha" and "I Broke Up (SJ)" with these themes and without prettying up the details as to spare those who were subjected to them. Knife Play
is catastrophic; it goes into this realm of personal tragedy I can never relate to nor could possibly comprehend, yet Stewart lies his own experiences bare for someone like me to see, ugliness and all.
The mood of Knife Play
shifts everywhere, gradually transitioning from manic tantrums and pierced screaming into simmering anger that is simultaneous in its depression and hatred. "Over Over," most importantly, marks such a change by becoming more subdued following a fearsome string introduction and horrific drum machines. "Anne Dong" on the other hand takes an example from Stewart's time as a preschool teacher and his experience with a student who didn't quite like him, and uses it in a story about a neglectful suburban father who leads a delusional life with a child he doesn't love. It's songs like these that captures the depressive streak of Stewart at its most gruesome.
But what makes the morbid stories of Knife Play
all the more gripping are their unsettling framing; it's what would become the hallmark of a many Xiu Xiu recordings – if not all of them – and the perfect setting for Stewart's emotionally stirring writing. Nobody else could possibly write something like "Poe Poe" and its themes of exploitation (from the viewpoints of a child and an older man) without making a few liberal sacrifices to the lyric, but Stewart ultimately comes to a decision that something so wrong must be seen and heard to be believed rather than leaving it up to interpretation. On the other end of the spectrum, something as personal and distraught as "Homonculus" puts Stewart in a light that his other works cannot; he needs
to write songs like this to not lose control of himself (as nonsensical as this may sound).
Yet, when Knife Play
reaches its conclusion, the desolation of a piano ballad like "Tonite and Today" is the emotional release, the much-needed catharsis, the baptism that frees Stewart from his torment. In contrast to the other pieces on the album, "Tonite and Today" is the most off-putting track, thanks in no part to the absence of Stewart's seething lyrics in favor of a song of resigned dejection; it's in a song such as this that Xiu Xiu would establish their purpose no matter how controversial or outlandish they would be.