The cover says it all. A picture of a fresh tattoo depicts the band name and album title, Xiu Xiu Always. And when it comes to Jamie Stewart’s cult pop project, this is less a throwaway banner and more a statement of intent.
For ten years the Californian group, currently working as a duo, have pushed boundaries with their themes, subject matter, lyrical content, song construction, and even relation to fans. It’s earned them a name as one of the most reliably difficult acts in their field, but this is not shock tactics; rather, a dedication to revealing and scraping at the depths of human emotion.
New record Always, their first UK release on Bella Union, continues this tradition offering only a little more accessibility than previous efforts. From the opening screeches of ‘Hi’, the tone is set to dark and prevails over the following eleven tracks. The fiercest moment is found in the provocatively titled ‘I Luv Abortion’ which sees Stewart screaming over an erratically slitting electronic backdrop, “When I look at my thighs I see death, it’s great, I luv abortion”.
The subject matter of the track evokes a similar shudder as the whispered beginning of Fabulous Muscles’ ‘Support Our Troops’, but it’s less obvious, less of an immediate impact. Always is a record that keeps everything on the inside. Initial listens mask the content with samples, sounds and melody. ‘Hi’ evokes the dance floor, while ‘Honey Suckle’ is almost singalong. But once you bury yourself into the gritty heart of repeated listens the ugly undertones bear their force. There are not many groups who can, for example, squeeze dead kittens and anal sex into their lyrical repertoire.
The essence of Xiu Xiu will always remain the same, and if you’re familiar with the past work of Stewart this record will come with no surprises. If however, you’re just starting out, it’s certainly a good entry point. Emotionally charged, devastatingly destructive, and often uncomfortable, it can make for a nerve-wracking listen, but certainly a rewarding one. The use of different electronics to create sounds that truly test your ears is impressive, yet underneath it all the real heart of this record lies in its bare honesty. And that is the key to what makes Xiu Xiu so addictively brilliant: their gutting, genuine, deeply brutal honesty. Always.