By Venus Rittenberg, Editorial Director
[5RC (Kill Rock Stars); Knife Play – 2002, A Promise – 2003]
Key tracks (Knife Play): Don Diasco, Suha,
Key tracks (A Promise): Apistat Commander, Fast Car, Ian Curtis Wishlist
TW: Self harm, suicide
Big Surprise! I’m writing about Xiu Xiu again!
This issue of my column will discuss Xiu Xiu’s first two albums in particular. I have already talked about their second studio album, A Promise, in my feature about Xiu Xiu that went over a good chunk of their discography, but I didn’t really give the album the attention it deserves. I also didn’t talk about Knife Play, their debut album, at all; something I regret considering how much the album has grown on me since.
These two albums came before Xiu Xiu began to heavily incorporate pop genres into their music. Although there are echoes of pop here and there, such as on “Over Over” and “Apistat Commander”, they definitely focus more on the noise and experimental side. I would say that A Promise is one of the best-known and most influential experimental albums of the 2000s.
Both of these albums blend elements of art pop with noise, electronic and industrial. Where Knife Play has more components of noise and industrial, A Promise is much more avant-garde and electronic, but it definitely still retains some of its pop sensibilities and melodies. Perfect examples of the defining sounds of these albums can be found on the tracks “Dr. Troll” from Knife Play and “Blacks” from A Promise. These albums created the foundation for the sound that Xiu Xiu would take on, and their echoes can be heard on all their albums that follow.
Knife Play’s fascinating fusion of noise and industrial sound with additional pop components make it an incredibly captivating album. It opens with “Don Diasco,” a song named after Don Dias, who was a member of Jamie Stewart’s band XITSJ prior to the formation of Xiu Xiu. The song begins how many songs on Knife Play begin, with clattering noise, and this one in particular sounds like banging pots and pans. “Don Diasco” immediately shows what Xiu Xiu is capable of, with Jamie’s shrieking vocals on the verses as he hollers “Good God, baby / Lady’s high.” This is followed by a catchy hook, “I cross my heart all the time / It’s always the same / Nothing happened / I cross my wrists, now you shut up / It’s always the same / Nothing happened.” This reference to self harm immediately shows the darker side of Stewart’s lyricism.
Track four of Knife Play is titled “Hives Hives,” and is a reworking of a song from Stewart’s first band, IBOPA, titled “Hives.” The song is about someone dying of AIDS, and is heart-shattering. In the second verse, Jamie wails, “Never finish my degree chachi / Never played with The Pogues,” illustrating the incompleteness that comes from a life cut short. Following the final chorus is an abrasive musical section that is as emotional as the lyrics. “Dr. Troll” follows “Hives Hives,” and is also a song with queer themes. It details Jamie’s experiences with gender dysphoria, and contains some of the most poignant lyrics I’ve heard about the trans experience. It’s very insightful. The song is also quite noisy, and although the melodies are sweet and tender, the abrasion from the noise is very assertive.
“Over Over” is my favorite song from Knife Play. The first line of the song is potentially a reference to one of The Smiths’ greatest songs, “I Know it’s Over.” Morrissey definitely had a clear influence on Jamie’s lyricism, and Xiu Xiu has covered The Smiths several times. The second verse is absolutely devastating, “I know, I know, I know it’s over / Your final descent, ick ick ick ick / Mixing pills and gas with incest / On the plane over / Folded up the last year of your life / Every play you tried to write in school / Venice is the right place to kill yourself” (this line is yelled). The song is about resignation that a person is going to lose their battle with mental illness, possibly a reference to Stewart’s dad, who committed suicide relatively soon after the release of this album. This is one of the poppiest songs on the album, and features a relatively low amount of noise after the intro, although it is still bubbling with dissonance just under the surface. It has a heavier focus on the electronic elements that would be more common on A Promise. One beautiful thing about Knife Play that this song demonstrates wonderfully is the use of strings. There is a gorgeous string line in the breaks between lines in the chorus and every time I hear it I clutch my heart.
Track eight on the album is “Suha,” probably the most depressing song on an album of bummers, full of references to suicide and self harm. The song also has little amounts of noise. It does, however, contain a beautiful, melancholy bari sax line. The song was inspired by experiences with feeling actively suicidal that Stewart’s mom shared with him. It is ultimately about feeling displaced. Jamie cries “when will I be going home” during the choruses, illustrating the feelings of displacement that occurs amongst those struggling with mental illness. The final track, “Tonite and Today” describes Jamie’s dad’s struggles with suicidal thoughts. It’s a very sparse track, just Jamie and a singular instrument (one of several throughout their discography to do this).
A Promise is absolutely devastating. The heartbreak carried through these 10 songs is brutal, even more than that of Knife Play. The one-two punch of the album’s first two songs is shocking. I’ve already spoken in detail about “Apistat Commander” during my feature, but I must once again note that it is one of the most stunning songs about suicide I’ve ever heard, among other things articulately describing the impacts it has on those who remain after a victim has passed, especially the transfer of the victim’s pain onto their loved ones. The opener, “Sad Pony Guerrilla Girl” is a rework of a XITSJ song, this version being much gentler, but in an unsettling way, not a comforting way. The song is about a married woman having an affair with a younger woman and the distress that arises from that situation. Jamie has said it is his favorite Xiu Xiu song.
“20,000 Deaths for Eidelyn Gonzales, 20,000 Deaths for Jamie Peterson” is the track for which this column is named. Like “Sad Pony Guerrilla Girl” it is calmer; a lot of A Promise is very gentle, but very unsettling. It features, like many other songs on these two albums, very specific references to Jamie Stewart’s personal life, and first names. “Blacks,” like “Apistat Commander” is explosive, but it feels more unhinged than “Apistat Commander.” The lyrics detail things Jamie’s dad said to him prior to killing himself. The song has an aggressive realness that anyone who has been around a suicidal person will recognize, and it can be hard to stomach.
The album wraps up with another painful two-song-punch, even more upsetting than the openers. First is a cover of Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car,” a song that Jamie has said has similar themes to that of Xiu Xiu, that a lot of the time things resolve in the worst way possible. The closer to A Promise is horribly upsetting. “Ian Curtis Wishlist” feels incredibly personal. It opens with a wall of noise, before moving into a more melodic section featuring some of Stewart’s most intense vocals, full of shrieks, yelling, and desolate singing. Stewart described an Ian Curtis wishlist as something you want to happen so bad you’ve convinced yourself it will happen, but deep down you know that it really won’t. It references Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis, and his desire to make-up with his wife, but failure to do so before he committed suicide. An eerie and harrowing note to end a deeply upsetting album on, but hey, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, that’s what Xiu Xiu does best.
Ultimately, both albums are incredibly painful in an incredibly unique way, both musically and lyrically. The music is unlike anything else I’ve ever heard, Knife Play sounds like blending Suicide with pop and slightly upping the noise, but A Promise really doesn’t have anything prior to its existence to compare it to. It retains some of the Cheree-like elements and noise at times, but is often very subtle, sparse, and calm, it sounds like staring at your bedroom ceiling alone for hours. On the lyrical end of things no one writes like Jamie, the specificity of the details and the use of proper names is genuinely jaw-dropping, among the other eccentricities of his writing. It all feels too real because it is all based in reality. In spite of being horribly depressing there is a beauty to these two albums that exists nowhere else in the world, and what they have to say about family, mental illness, death, love and their intersections is unparalleled in the world of music.