Review Summary: Meaning is a found thing.
The world is a glass spilling over with pain. It warps the ceilings of the houses where we grew up, and roots beneath our skin like tumors, unseen and all the heavier. Tendrils of the stuff wrap around the heart and wend wires through the brain. Through them, we learn, we breathe, and we live. Some people add more, and some people try with all their might to never grow more of the pain planted in themselves. Sometimes they succeed. Sometimes we love in spite of ourselves and marry someone and raise lots of babies, to keep the whole sordid human tragicomedy trundling along.
Over the last two decades, Xiu Xiu has tangled with these impulses as directly as anyone. Closing in on twenty studio releases, on top of collaborations and re-interpretations, they are smattered with panicked anecdotes and anxious Polaroids. Jamie Stewart’s words themselves are zoomed in so closely that they often lose their own context, eggshell tint on a vacant canvas. “Flaming hot Cheetos. Fuego Takis,” he may half-whisper, as an insistent echo from 2002 shouts “This is the worst vacation ever! I am going to cut open your forehead with a roofing shingle!” On paper, the tone is anyone’s guess. Back in 2002, it was the clipping shouts that sunk beneath lashing waves of noise that turned the words from an exaggerated mocking of childlike hyperbole into something rather more unsettling. It is the eruption into the mindless noise dance cacophony of a chorus after the quiet chip-dust verse, replete with racing shouts of the titular "Rumpus Room" and the black black blue blue blue blue color of bruises, that does the same in 2021.
This has always been the modus operandi. Xiu Xiu often assimilates the language and sonics of kitsch, but the results are uniformly and unmistakably genuine. This is the same Jamie Stewart who assembled a po-faced ode to relentless self-loathing on a Nintendo DS. In the decade since that experiment, Angela Seo has stayed on board as Jamie’s co-conspirator in caterwaul, racking up a laundry list of instrumental credits of her own in an increasingly volatile discography. The earliest works all struck a tentative equilibrium between confrontational noise and reflective stillness, under the ever looming threat of beautiful melody. With Angela on board, that stylistic trademark, while not gone, has certainly been pushed one way or the other along those internal extremes of noise and beauty, calamity and calm. These ensuing records more easily broken down and pithily identified via Friends episode naming conventions: The One with the LGBT Dance-Pop, The One With the Yammering Noise-Fest, The One Where Jamie Gets Really into Birdwatching.
, then, is a return. Those competing inner logics of a Xiu Xiu album are the most balanced they've felt since the early releases, but here the guiding hands of Jamie and Angela (on harmonium, autoharp, viola, bass synth, mandolin, bajo quinto, gongs, etc.) are steadier, in total control of the malleable tone. Never quite broken, never quite defiant, never quite serene, never quite sad. The songs themselves cover familiar Xiu Xiu territory – cycling patterns of abuse, the dissolution of love, the defensive sexuality of self-loathing, and, crucially, the way in which these are all intertwined. The kitsch skin is present, too, of course.
A head rolling down the stairs.
But from the opening notes of Sharon van Etton’s wavering, frightened plea of “no no no,” in "Sad Mezcalita," overwhelming in the quiet restraint of its delivery and strummed accompaniment, and subsequent cathartic bloom into a swooning chorus, there is something more here. OH NO
is a refinement of everything that has made Xiu Xiu one of the most fascinating projects of the 21st Century, without sacrificing the raw passion that underlied their appeal in the first place. The record was conceived as an album of duets, performed between Jamie and a host of outside musicians and multi-disciplinarians, that often wouldn’t look like out of place as a prospective indie festival line-up. Friday on the mainstage: Sharon von Etten, Deerhoof, Chelsea Wolfe, Drab Majesty, Grouper...
Casting this wide a net comes with the inherent risk of tonal inconsistency and, coupled with a runtime nearly ten minutes longer than any other record of (almost entirely) original Xiu Xiu compositions, could’ve set up for a project dotted with filler; a hesitancy to cut the work of artists explicitly solicited for collaboration. That is not the way things have worked out. Each piece adds another refracted shade to the spinning kaleidoscope of warmth and gloom.
On early highlight “The Grifters,” Haley Fohr of Circuit des Yeux matches Jamie’s trademark pseudo-operatic histrionics beat for beat across as soaring a refrain as any in Xiu Xiu’s back catalog. “It Bothers Me All the Time,” with Shearwater’s Jonathan Meiburg, intrudes on its eerie borderline-drone pulse with interruptions of skittering noise. The pitched shrieks mimic the rats and dung beetles offered as favorable comparisons to a degraded “You” in the song’s verse. Liz Harris joins for lead single and proper closer “A Bottle of Rum,” unabashedly triumphant in both its melodies and lyrics that recast the album’s waves of lashing trauma, whether into the bottom of a bottle or an unashamed race towards something new. Things change. The present won’t stay, and in the middle of catastrophe, that must be good news. “Tonite and today,” Liz sings, pulling the title of Xiu Xiu debut Knife Play
’s closer, pulling it away from that record’s contextual proximity to the very real tragic death of Jamie’s father, pulling it into something new. Good? Bad? Who the f
uck knows. Why ask?
Endings are arbitrary. That’s always felt a guiding light through the winding road of Xiu Xiu’s discography. Jamie and Angela have engaged with trauma, stared it in the face for what it is, but the point has never been to wallow. It is the necessary life project of the pessimist to find a reason for optimism, and for as many of their previous records touch greatness in that pursuit, none have realized it quite so potently as OH NO
. “Goodbye for Good,” with frequent collaborator Greg Saunier, builds from a synth drone and rhythmless percussion through a slowly mutating noise field, conjuring cracking jaws, disgusted plants, and the bag of suicide pills under the water heater when the ecosystem collapses. But the song keeps going. Are the repeated chants of the title from a person’s dying farewell to the flowers, or the flowers bidding adieu to their oppressors, ready to take back the ruins?