Xiu Xiu – “Always”
There are few people who can tie your stomach up in knots quite like Jamie Stewart of Xiu Xiu. Listening to a Xiu Xiu album is like watching a horror film; there is an almost blissful feeling after the tension is finally relieved. Always is Xiu Xiu’s least dissonant and aggressive album to date, and one of the best entry points to their catalogue.
Album opener “Hi” would be a simple enough synth pop song, except for Stewart’s on-the-verge-of-tears vocals. They give the song enough urgency to stand out, despite its characterless music. The next track, “Joey’s Song,” is a better example of what makes Xiu Xiu so successful: contrasts. The song opens with an angelic female choir, before Stewart and soaring synthesizers take over. The choir offers the sacred, while he offers the profane. Either element would be too much when isolated, maybe even tacky, but when combined they become sublime.
Elsewhere, the contrasts are even more drastic. “I Luv Abortion” has to be one of the most squirm-inducing Xiu Xiu songs since “Support Our Troops Oh! (Black Angels Oh!)” from Fabulous Muscles. A throbbing synthesizer part (which seems like it is lifted from a movie scene where someone is trying to defuse a bomb) is decorated with vocals about how “the rose goblin is vacuumed o.u.t. out!” And then the noise comes to a full stop, and Stewart sings “The Oldness,” an achingly beautiful song scored mostly with piano. The song almost allows you to forget what came before it for three wonderful minutes.
Always doesn’t consistently reach these highs. “Factory Girls” is a downright disappointing track near the end of the album, where Stewart’s vocals just sound ridiculous against the acoustic guitar. But even that song is redeemed by what follows it.
Even if it is occasionally marred by duds, the highs on Always are too great to simply ignore them. Those blemishes may prevent this from being one of Xiu Xiu’s best albums, but not from being one of their most enjoyable.
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