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Xiu Xiu has always been a polarizing act, though some observations about the band are commonly accepted. Jamie Stewart’s tremulous vocals can feel vulnerable and threatening at once. He likes concept albums. And he is a fan of lots of kinds of music—gamelan, noise, dance, folk, punk—which makes his arrangements wondrously varied. Xiu Xiu has managed the feat of combining hooks and cacophony without spoiling either ingredient. They can offer a good time under the art-rock tent.
They can also be exasperating. As a lyricist, Stewart’s penchant for disturbing themes has become predictable over the last 16 years. No matter how far afield Xiu Xiu travels sonically, the emotional landscape is fixed. That trend continues on their latest album’s opener, “The Call.” The song starts with rapid-fire, nearly rapped lines about a “bitch,” and closes with a coda that goes: “Clap bitches/Why why why bitch/Why why cunt why/…Clap bitches.” At a level of vocal texture, these lines don’t sound like they’re sung by Stewart. (Credits list Enyce Smith as a guest vocalist on the track.) But in conceptual terms, the words definitely sound like they come from the guy who once sang “I Luv Abortion.” The verses and choruses shed little contextual light, and the final effect of “The Call” is one of disorientation—a familiar Xiu Xiu tactic.
By now, a choice like this doesn’t seem all that risky, or even commendably ugly. When he crafts a line like this, is Stewart just ticking boxes on the Xiu Xiu style-bingo sheet? Only he knows for sure. But both the pleasures and discomforts of FORGET involve the way the album invites that question. The set consolidates several of the band’s strengths: The production is stellar, with plenty of room for noise-damage as well as melodies (which are numerous). Xiu Xiu has fielded a wide array of intriguing experimental records in the last couple years, but they haven’t turned in pop-adjacent songs this memorable since 2012’s Always.
On “Wondering,” group backing vocals and distortion squall create a chorus of wild power. The otherwise self-pitying “Get Up” launches an ascending arpeggio at its conclusion, and it’s catchy and startling. Even the songs that don’t register as strongly have winning quirks—as with the timorous breakdown that leads to a screaming climax on “Jenny GoGo.”
But as a collection, FORGET doesn’t cohere in the same way that their best recent projects have. Plays the Music of Twin Peaks allowed the band to show an interpretive wisdom regarding another artist’s aesthetic, while remaining identifiable as Xiu Xiu. A recent collaboration with the contemporary classical group Mantra Percussion showed that Stewart can compose long-form works just as well as some of his ambitious experimental peers, like Deerhoof’s Greg Saunier. (Saunier appears on “Petite,” and also co-produced FORGET, alongside John Congleton and band-member Angela Seo.) Those albums had a point of view, and made sustained stylistic arguments. But according to Stewart, the organizing conceit of FORGET has to do with the “duality of human frailty.” On the idea of forgetting, he says: “It is a rebirth in blanked out renewal but it also drowns and mutilates our attempt to hold on to what is dear.”
That’s all true enough (if a bit overwrought). But it’s also thin: a simple observation about a human trait having benefits and drawbacks. Nor is there much evidence of this concept operating inside the record itself. Stewart’s lines are filled with the expected references to “the rape of everything decent” and the like—but not much that’s direct regarding the problems of a solipsism, or a selective memory.
The guests all seem a bit stranded, too. On the album finale, “Faith, Torn Apart,” the carillon tones of New York minimalist legend Charlemagne Palestine sound grafted onto the mix. And while a closing soliloquy voiced by legendary drag artist Vaginal Davis is arresting, it doesn’t connect with anything that’s come before. (In interviews, Stewart has detailed the inspiration behind what Davis says, but its presentation on the album remains vague.) Individual moments shine throughout FORGET: a stunning chorus here, a stirring lick of pitched percussion there. But the album’s strangest attribute is the way it can lull you into a state of absentmindedness regarding those same charms.Share