Finding Comfort in a Hopeless Place, a Guide To Xiu Xiu

By Venus Rittenberg, Contributor

Editorial content warning: sexual abuse, self-harm, suicide, depression

Xiu Xiu (pronounced shoo-shoo) is my favorite band. I’m drawn to them for many reasons, but some of those are the same reasons that people find Xiu Xiu polarizing and challenging to listen to. In the wake of their recently announced 15th album, OH NO, I’m here to provide a guide to Xiu Xiu, what I find appealing about them and how to get into them, because with a discography this diverse and wondrous, there’s something for everybody.

To start, what does Xiu Xiu sound like? This is a difficult question to answer as they tend to change up their sound quite often and blend many genres. Xiu Xiu combines aspects of synth-punk, art pop, and post-industrial, often all in one song. It’s this unique blend of pop and noise that creates something truly unique and keeps me and many others hooked. 

It’s not just this unique sound that makes Xiu Xiu difficult to navigate, but also their lyrical style. Frontman Jamie Stewart’s lyricism is unparalleled. Though his brutal truthfulness is what made me fall in love with Xiu Xiu, some people might find it overwhelmingly sad, just wallowing, or in some cases even triggering. Jamie’s willingness to discuss personal struggles so openly is refreshing. As someone who struggles with trauma and depression, I have found comfort in Jamie’s words. No other artist I’ve found is so blunt; it’s terribly cathartic. Between the uncanny sound and upsetting lyrics, it’s no wonder why Xiu Xiu is a hard band to get into, but hopefully, this brief overview of their essential albums and where to start makes the process easier for you.

And where to start? I suggest their third album, Fabulous Muscles. Fabulous Muscles is like a sampler of everything Xiu Xiu. There are bits of pop, snippets of noise, and plenty of depressing lyrics. It’s like Sufjan Stevens blended with Suicide (specifically “Frankie Teardrop”). The lyrical themes are of family dysfunction, mental illness, and abuse. The album begins with “Crank Heart”, a song about Jamie’s mother. It begins with a beep that immediately fills the listener with the nervous tension that floods this entire album. “Crank Heart” is followed by Xiu Xiu’s most-popular song, “I Luv the Valley OH!” The piece deals with the hereditary nature of mental illness, Jamie’s struggle with medication, and his dad’s battles with depression and self-harm. “It’s l’histoire de la family,” “It’s a pill, and you’ve got to take it / I won’t rest until you take it,” “That’s a razor and you make a threat.” It features catchy guitar melodies, an incredible bassline, thumping drums, all with intense, despondent vocals. Side B of the album begins with a trio of songs about sexual abuse. These songs are matched with equally painful instrumentals, making them very powerful but very upsetting. Following these songs is “Clowne Towne”, a song about being in an absolutely hopeless place in life. “Clowne towne, no exit,” Jamie laments his inability to escape the desperate situation he finds himself in over a fantastic art-pop instrumental. It’s a crushing song that thrusts its hopelessness onto the listener, which really, the whole album does quite effectively. This hopeless feeling is what makes Fabulous Muscles so interesting. Few other albums have affected me this much, and it’s nice to listen to something so powerful. From Fabulous Muscles there are a few different places you could go. I recommend either A Promise or Always.

A Promise is even rawer than Fabulous Muscles. I recommend it for fans of bands like Nine Inch Nails. Instead of focusing on abuse like Fabulous Muscles, the project concentrates on suicide. The second track, “Apistat Commander” is an excellent example of this. Jamie names people in his life to show how suicide devastates everyone around the victim. It starts off slow and quiet but erupts into a violent, fast-paced version two minutes in. “All that you left, you left for someone / All of this hurt that’s wilted off / All this relief, it’s the oddest thing,” Jamie cries in the chorus, delivering powerful lines about the way suicide harms people, rather than freeing them. Jamie wails “oh my God, oh my God, oh my God” at the end of every chorus with so much desperation in his voice that it forms a mass of grief that engulfs the listener. It’s incredibly intense and heartrending. Yet perhaps even more sour is the cover of Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” later on the album. “Fast Car” is already one of the most hopeless songs of all time, but Xiu Xiu’s cover is even more harrowing. The album ends with “Ian Curtis Wishlist,” a song so painful and specific it feels like nobody but Jamie should be listening. The title is a reference to the Joy Division frontman who committed suicide. Jamie’s father also committed suicide around the release of this album. The titular promise is Jamie assuring his mother he wouldn’t kill himself. 

Always is Xiu Xiu’s poppiest release. It’s akin to Lorde but about depression. There’s still some noise to be found here, though. Pro-choice anthem “I Luv Abortion” is quite a noisy affair, but overall the album is much more focused on pop than the industrial side of things. One of the danciest songs on the album is the opener, “Hi”. “Hi” is an anthem for the depressed. Jamie calls on people suffering from various ailments to say hi, such as “If you are wasting your life, say hi” or, as a call to transgender people (Jamie himself has struggled with gender dysphoria), “If your body is wrong.” Yet the most painful moment on the album comes in the closer, “Black Drum Machine,” a song about Jamie’s personal experiences with sexual abuse. In truly revolting fashion Jamie explains the abuse his mother experienced at the hands of her father, “And as a locust would eat / Your father was the first man inside of you,” before going into explaining his own trauma, “Your body is all your own / Keep it away from mine.” It’s a sickening, eerie thing that ends an otherwise relatively accessible album on about the darkest note possible.

After Always, Xiu Xiu released Angel Guts: Red Classroom, a return to their industrial roots (once again, closer to bands like Suicide and Nine Inch Nails). Although it still features plenty of poppier moments, such as “Stupid In The Dark,” labeling the album pop would definitely be inaccurate. Perhaps the synth-punkiest song of them all is the penultimate track, “Cinthya’s Unisex,” a song about jealousy and threesomes. It’s an insanely fast-paced industrial banger, reminiscent of “Apistat Commander”, that features Jamie’s favorite Xiu Xiu lyric, “I hate everyone but you,” repeated as the song explodes into noise. The album ends with “Botanica de Los Angeles,” another song about abuse and suicide that is incredibly bass-heavy. The pounding bass immediately grabs and shakes you, forcing you to take note of everything in this tornado of a song. Following Angel Guts, the band was commissioned by an Australian art museum to release a cover of the Twin Peaks soundtrack. Their next studio album saw Xiu Xiu returning to pop, releasing FORGET. FORGET featured glamorous pop tunes like “Wondering” and “Get Up”, which my partner described as “like anxious David Bowie.”

What followed Forget was Xiu Xiu’s strangest album to date and one of the most bizarre albums of all time: Girl with Basket of Fruit. Jamie stated in interviews that he had been listening to Haitian drummers prior to this album’s release. This is immediately clear from the album’s opening track, which begins with thundering drums. Side A continues on with its ritualistic instrumentals, producing some of the most experimental music I’ve ever heard. It’s simply frightening. But Side B is where the lyrical horror kicks in. “Mary Turner Mary Turner” details the barbaric lynching of Mary Turner, a pregnant woman whose unborn child was also murdered, in disturbing detail. Jamie then presents his thesis: “Fuck your guns, Fuck your wars / Fuck your truck, Fuck your flag.” An understandable criticism of the United States, especially in the face of such violent acts of racism. The album ends with “Normal Love,” a song about queer love and just wanting to feel normal. It’s a surprisingly tame song considering the album it concludes, ending the album on a quiet, painful poppy note.

Girl with Basket of Fruit may have felt out of place when it came out, but I think it demonstrates what Xiu Xiu is perfectly: a band that experiments. Their lyrical experimentation is just as worthy of note as their musical experimentation, and both pay off incredibly well. These recurring themes of trauma, mental illness, left-wing politics, and queerness keep me and countless fans coming back, and these musical themes of pop blended with harsh noise are unique, catchy, and awe-inspiring. Their massive discography leaves me feeling content but also aching for more, and more is coming: on March 26, OH NO, an album of duets. The lead single, “A Bottle of Rum,” with Grouper’s Liz Harris shows Xiu Xiu returning to pop, but what the album will hold is a mystery, and Jamie has already promised some industrial tracks, including a cover of The Cure’s “One Hundred Years” with Chelsea Wolfe. There’s much to look forward to as a Xiu Xiu fan, and now is the perfect time to get on board with them. So having read this, go listen to Fabulous Muscles, give them a shot, and find out for yourself why they’re my favorite band.

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