“This record is not fit for human consumption.”
– BPM editor Rob Hakimian
This review is torn in two. The cursive parts indulge in moments of darkness explored by Xiu Xiu‘s new album Ignore Grief. The non-cursive parts describe the record in objective terms. Please choose to read it however you feel comfortable indulging with the album’s extreme and often upsetting themes.
We watch romantic comedies and change the ends of fairytales. We read descriptions on cereal boxes and change the channel when images of war come on. We believe some daily myths; we’re told to have some peace of mind and remind ourselves that we do not have to be afraid. To fear. To relegate the nightmares from the living realm back into our dreams, where they belong, where they are made digestible illusions. Because we are fragile, soft and squishy things. We listen to Taylor Swift and soon we fall asleep.
Part of us resides where we eat pigs and dogs and other unclean things. Where rust marks our walls and furniture is tar charred black! The horror is right there, behind thin veils of our civilised lies. The moment it is gone, we ourselves become undone and fall apart. Because ‘that cannot be which mustn’t be’!
Artists have attempted to break this veil across eternity. It’s there in Stuck’s images of Medusa and sin itself, in HR Giger’s genital landscapes and Chambers’ “The Repairer of Reputations”. And it’s in music, too: Scott Walker’s The Drift. Sortsind’s Sår. Sutcliffe Jügend’s When Pornography is no longer enough. Nine Inch Nails’ Broken Movie.
Indigestible, mad, midnight black records that devour souls: beware of Saturn! He’s right inside the shadows of Schwarzer Romantik!
Xiu Xiu have wandered these streets before, when they invoked eternal damnation and the breaking of souls into bodies. They reconfigured Laura Palmer into jello cake and chronicled a senseless lynching in gory detail. Ever since Jamie Stewart chose his path, madness and damnation have walked with him. At various points, the weight became too much. Way too much. This lovely human has simply known darkness like few in his generation.
And there’s a cut in his work that shows us that, right there in the moments when Caralee McElroy and Cory McCulloch exited and Angela Seo joined the band. At that point – 2009 – the notorious pop influence broke down and something else entered the door. Many turned their backs on the band for a while, disgusted the Dennis Cooper Body Horror of A Promise transformed into the neon slashers of Always. But like the pied piper, Stewart and Seo would collect them all, one by one, in a sprawling array of haunted houses. Until this point.
People are the consequence of all the pieces of their broken shards, of lightless moons that hang low in cloudless skies. So Stewart and Seo have chosen fives stories of soul drowning of people whom they know. Split open in the middle, Ignore Grief yells in two ways: one the screams of biographical reality, the other the processed breathing of fictionalized reconfiguration of the same. Stewart seems to face reality, all broken orchestras and wailing, while Seo has the stories bloom through the lenses of teenage tragedy, an obscure 1950s American pop genre, whispering her lines in the tone of a tattered broken doll.
Why would I even want to go into detail on these stories? For the same purpose, Xiu Xiu made this album: to somehow find a way to unmake the pain, the horror, the absolute and boundless onyx vomit that inhabits these very songs. At their heart, these are stories of power and abuse and pain: suicide, murder, cultish abandon, drug addiction, the commodification of a child in an act of unbelievable cruelty. The band themselves introduce the concept record clarifying that they have “spent 20 years grappling with how to process, to be empathetic towards, to disobey and to reorganize horror; there is no other word for it other than horror”. True, for there is none.
But how can one word be translated into music?
The glory of the atmosphere when the solemn wanderer encounters the Butcher in Diablo must have spawned a thousand 90s kids’ nightmares. But it’s not the moment of the confrontation (which always ends up badly for each journeyer): it’s the anticipation thereafter of revisiting the moment! The dark, ritualistic ambient that envelops the scene when the demon finally shows his form makes the tension all the worse. Because it’s not about revisiting the moment, it’s about experiencing the feeling of hopelessness. Stewart and Seo are not content with exploitation of brutality, instead aiming at symbols and atmospheres to communicate a sense of dread and otherworldly chaos. The very brief last gasps of sanity when confronted with what lies behind the veil. They do not relish in the gore of the moment of visiting, they try to make you feel!
It’s interesting that for this, the duo have brought in David Kendrick, drummer in the LA Wave scene who most prominently workwed with Devo in the late 80s. He brings a sharp, apocalyptic energy to the abstract forms, binds in them a way. The ghosts and demons conjured by the two Xius are caught in his geometrical webs so they won’t escape in their formlessness. He brings the industrial to the Death Industrial of Ignore Grief.
Seo’s half is the more digestible one. At times there are melodies that cut through the chaos and the machine-like hum, brief moments of clarity and familiarity that will the listener to not abandon these dark paths, before plunging on into the next horrible sound, the next half-remembered nightmare. Ominous and beckoning, her abstraction of pop into Tsukamoto-like metal bodies is riveting. Stewart’s songs are different, more vaporous, reliant on orchestral complexities: strings and wind instruments lend a cinematic quality, but are all the more despairing. It’s his songs that make the album frightening. That and the lyrics.
The festering poetry of “Maybae Baeby” chronicles an abused child hiding from their parents under a bed, indulging in an imaginary conversation with a Tarantula. The child, through Seo, wonders: “If he finds me and sees the tarantula too – Chuga, chuga, chuga – will he hesitate? If you scare him away, I will get a tarantula tattoo. If you need to bite me, I will understand.” The animal acts because of its instincts, not because of its cruelty. As the child moves its finger closer to the animal: “Do you ever turn into a butterfly or a wasp? Do you never change? My finger is getting closer… Am I going to smash you?” Do we become what we most fear because what is done to us transforms us, or will miracles happen and we are blessed with the strength and wings and fly away? There’s no resolution, only a dream that ends.
Seo indulges in those metaphors and fairytale references to show that the reality of those stories is still true today. On “Brothel Creeper”, she links the thoughts of a suicidal sex worker to that of Snow White: “Fanciful summer / Eating poison apples”. Later, she explores how we are the editors of our own tragedies: “A scalping knife is just a dull knife / How will I have worn my hair in this exceptional moment?”
“Dracula Parrot, Moon Moth” – beautiful creatures both of them. The bird’s strong features like cut from metal, the moth’s soft mint wings the shape of flowers, tears on its petals. But Stewart doesn’t pause to marvel, instead coughing up a chain of violence: “Incestuous – Nudity – To hate – Actively – Murderous – Exequy – Exhumate – Unsmothering – Rites of reversal”. Where Seo’s lyrics take on the form of poetic literature to perform seances, Stewart’s feel like broken rituals, conveying foreign spirits that inhabit him. On “666 Photos of Nothing”, he ends a horrifying tale with the gaze of a child: “A heaven of no-ones and never-nevers”. There’s no reconfiguration, no imagination, no metaphors. There’s just the moment of nothing.
The poetry Seo and Stewart choose – hints of dadaism and surrealism – allows them to explore how victims are able to face their trauma, both when it occurs and in their memory. But it asks a lot of its listeners: where Seo’s songs are content with exploring how horrors are always a kaleidoscope of our imagination – showing us terrible things but also fracturing the occurrences into various tonal and semantic images like a filmmaker or poet – Stewart’s pieces abandon the kaleidoscope for the fractured soul itself.
This might inspire some listeners to read Ignore Grief as some kind of endurance test: ‘can you make it through?’ And therein lies a criticism that should be mentioned: do we need to indulge in the hopelessness of pain and terror with no light shining in? Even Scott Walker had the “duck of death” as a somewhat grotesquely ironic jump-scare (I won’t name the song – if you know, you know) and the Tarkovskian image of the trapped bird which is released in the poignant and painfully beautiful coda of “Clara”.
But then it becomes important to remember that Xiu Xiu have always been a political act. This record – like most dark art – is not merely meant as an extreme experience, but a critique of structure that commodifies human bodies. In a capitalist society that regurgitates the myth that individuals are worthless if they cannot fit a purpose for their environment, every soul can become a body. These bodies are convenient to commodify, sell and entrap, used and discarded so long as they fit an ulterior purpose. When capital itself becomes an absurdity, cut off from vast swaths of the population and hoarded by a select group of morons, reality is torn apart and people do anything to feel powerful, to make some money, to construct their own empire of which they become the tyrant.
Thus, Ignore Grief is a sprawling work about the effects of dehumanization. Once we make it out the other end if exploring its landscapes and lyrics, it doesn’t ask us: have you too ever been held down? Rather, the silence that follows explores the mind of the visitor. Like a nightmare that ends, we wake up with mirror shards still before our inner eyes. What fragment stuck with us will mean something. In the end, Ignore Grief is just music. How will it inspire us as humans to be better?