When I was twelve years old, a girl in my class got pregnant. She was kind of disowned from her family and she couldn’t afford day care. It didn’t matter. She still had to go to school and in the middle of enduring the taunts and mockery, she had to take care of her kid. As a consequence, she was angry at her classmates, hated herself, and I think she probably regretted the string of decisions she made that led her to that place. Maybe she even regretted having her child. Basically, she’d have made excellent subject matter for a Xiu Xiu song.
Jamie Stewart, Xiu Xiu’s broken frontman, has always trafficked in moments like that, and with melodrama as much as drama. Stories of abuse, self-destruction, brutal protests of war, intense self-hatred, suicide, and indignance have always been central to Xiu Xiu, and occasionally those stories would (intentionally or not) move from affecting to confrontational or, at their worst, into parody. On Always, that’s no different. The art in the liner notes of this record contains pictures presumably of real fans who have literally carved the words “Xiu Xiu” into their skin. There are songs called “Black Drum Machine,” “Born to Suffer,” and “I Luv Abortion” on this record. This band is not trying to be subtle.
But they’ve never tried to be subtle. Always, then, is as much a reminder as it is an album title. A reminder that Jamie Stewart and company have always been interested in this subject matter, in these confrontational noises, in these difficult song structures. As a result, when listening through the record, it’s hard to put your finger on anything quantifiable that separates it from Xiu Xiu’s best records, like Fabulous Muscles or The Air Force. All the hallmarks of a classic Xiu Xiu record are present here. There’s still “Support Our Troops”-style half-shouted noise breakdowns (the aforementioned “I Luv Abortion”), brutally sad ballads of the “Wig Master” variety (“The Oldness”), and psycho-pop “Crank Heart” weirdness (“Born to Suffer”). And it wouldn’t be a Xiu Xiu record if it didn’t include lyrics that didn’t straddle the line between brutal affecting and uncomfortably bare. Stewart screams something almost indecipherable about “Satan’s hot cock”; seeing death between your thighs is “rad”; in “Black Drum Machine,” incestuous rape runs across a variety of gender roles. The best of Xiu Xiu has always been when this uncomfortable feeling seemed like a call to arms on behalf of the people it was lobbying for, like a diary entry for the victims it ennumerated. Still, something intangible that lingered below the surface of those previous records is sadly lacking on Always.
So here’s a sad truth about people: once they understand the tactics you’re using to get your message across, the message loses its impact if you still attempt to approach them from that angle. Xiu Xiu has been doing exactly what they do on Always for ten years and nine LPs now. The burst of oscillating static noise that closes “Black Drum Machine” is an expected outcome of their sound, not a surprising blast of ugly tonelessness that underpins the tragedy of the song’s characters. And the uncompromising language Stewart has always (there’s that word again) used to bring angry life to his subjects no longer invites disturbingly vivid mental images, just the echoes of the ones he conjured on our first experiences.
The failing of Always, then, is that it’s a victim of either acclimation or addiction. Either we’ve heard this story too many times or it’s not quite up to the standards of our last hit. Instead, it’s simply another Xiu Xiu record, a collection of songs about those damaged by horrible circumstances into near-paralysis. These are stories we’ve already heard told better, and in the same voices. By the time high school came to a close, that girl I knew was more prepared to deal with life than any of the rest of us, even moreso than the small handful of other girls who had to deal with teen pregnancies later down the line. Those girls went to her for advice, and she gave it with her head held high. Basically, she’d have made terrible subject matter for a Xiu Xiu song.
Plugging away since 1999, The National finally hit mainstream success with the release of their 2010 album High Violet. Of course, this entailed their first world tour, but in the new documentary Mistaken For Strangers, it’s only the backdrop for the relationship between lead singer Matt Berninger and his younger brother Tom, who had no idea that these short videos he was shooting would turn into a public document of their troubled, if still loving brotherhood.
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