By Venus Rittenberg, Editorial Director
[5 Rue Christine; 2006]
Key tracks: “Boy Soprano”, “Bishop, CA”, “The Fox and the Rabbit”
The Air Force is the fifth Xiu Xiu album. It concludes a practically perfect five-album run, and is the perfect conclusion to the sheer brutality of the first four. The Air Force was the second Xiu Xiu album to click for me, and thus it holds a special place in my heart.
There’s something that sets The Air Force apart from the other Xiu Xiu albums up until this point. It is a description that Jamie Stewart, the lead singer themself has made explicit. “I would say that this year has been one of the first not dominated by personal tragedies,” Stewart said of the year spent creating this album to Pitchfork. But personal tragedies are what all the other Xiu Xiu albums are about, so what of this one?
“Guilt and sex as opposed to sorrow and sex,” Stewart said. The album’s lyrics still deal with traumatic events, such as the album’s centerpiece, “Bishop, CA”, but that song perfectly demonstrates what Stewart is talking about. The trauma in that song isn’t trauma they experience. Stewart’s life over the past handful of years definitely seems to have been a whirlwind, describing the events that make up my favorite album of all time, Fabulous Muscles, as “incredibly, incredibly violent, incredibly jarring and difficult to take,” and the following album La Forêt as being about processing those events. The Air Force is after all of that. It is about facing life again, with a new perspective altered by those traumatic events. There’s a perspective shift demonstrated throughout the album that shows a new outlook, a tainted innocence (not that Xiu Xiu was ever really innocent).
This changed perspective is demonstrated early on in the album, a clear example being the opening line to the second song, “Boy Soprano”. I like to think of “Boy Soprano” as this album’s “I Luv the Valley OH!” It is the hit, the banger, as they say. When I found this album, I had just received some life-altering news about someone in my life at the time, and the first line of the song, “Look at me / Nothing bad is ever going to happen to you again,” captured the protective nature I felt towards them. The preceding song, “Buzz Saw”, opens the album with a song about sex, and the aforementioned guilt. The chorus goes “I’m not like that / I’m not so good.” Towards the end of the song, Stewart sings, “How is it you thought I might be?” illustrating the disappointment they are bringing people.
Track 3 features Caralee McElroy on vocals, and could be interpreted in a handful of ways. As a transgender person, I prefer to think of it as a genderqueer anthem of sorts. It would not be the first or last time Xiu Xiu touches on transgender topics.
“Vulture Piano” deals with a difficult topic: sexual assault. However, the song is unique, as it is hard to tell if it is from the viewpoint of the victim or the perpetrator. The chorus ends with the line, “I know she was the best you had,” which is a fucked up view of sexual assault regardless of who’s perspective it is from, but then again, knowing Xiu Xiu, that’s probably the point. Musically, this song is crazy. It has a super dancy melody that is impossible to not get stuck in your head. There’s a breakdown towards the end of the song that is just simply awesome. It is a song you have to experience.
The centerpiece of the album is one of Xiu Xiu’s best songs and it is literally perfect. “Bishop, CA” tells the story of someone who was sexually assaulted by their father, and the after effects of such abuse. The song has a flawless structure. It starts off quite subtle and simple for the first four verses, before entering an instrumental break. This instrumental break builds up a lot of tension and intensity before releasing and calming down again. Once the storm has subsided, Stewart sings perhaps the best verse they have ever written: “Should you be ashamed for more than that / The night your daddy raped you silly? / Leaning my head on the refrigerator / Crying for the stupid world we share.” This is brutal. The acceptance that the world is filled with much evil that Stewart obtains from being told this news is acutely painful. However, before a listener can even fully process what has just been said, the song immediately flows into a chorus of Stewart singing “Walla, walla, walla, walla, walla, walla, hey”. This moment feels like a quiet defeat. It sounds like a lump in your throat. Once it finishes, the song launches into an explosive burst of noise, the climax of the song. It is brutal and gut-wrenching. Once the noise has finished, the song quiets down and has a short outro. You don’t need to fully calm down during this outro for the next song though, as the next song is a brief little instrumental that you can breathe during.
The penultimate track is another easy highlight. “The Fox and the Rabbit” is one of my favorite vocal performances from Jamie Stewart, and contains a contender for my favorite lyric they have ever written. “I like people who are wrong / Could you then feel like I do?” This is the opening line, and it immediately sets the tone of the song, and retroactively functions as a thesis for the whole album. The song is about what feels like the culmination of a relationship that has a power imbalance, thus the metaphor of a fox and a rabbit. The song features constant flips between Stewart’s higher register whimpers and lower register operatic vocal performances. It is a beautiful juxtaposition. Eventually, the song reaches a shift, a coda. It features Stewart yelling “When the fox hears the rabbit cry / He comes running / But not to help.” This illustrates the power imbalance in the relationship, one of them is preying on the other, taking advantage. The intro to the coda is crazy! It features a great drum rhythm that goes super hard and immediately makes a listener tense. There is a live version where Stewart is solo on the guitar performing this song, and thus the drum and synth parts must be played on guitar. The rendition of this drum rhythm, and the chords during the chorus, are stunning and almost make me prefer that version.
“The Fox and the Rabbit” is not the last song on the album, however, there is one more. “The Wig Master” may be Xiu Xiu’s weirdest track, which is saying a lot. I am not so fond of this version, but WHY? does a lovely rendition featuring melodies (something this song doesn’t really have) and additional lyrics that make the song significantly better in my opinion. I’m not going into detail about the song. It’s a song that I think needs to be experienced firsthand and within the context of the album, but I think it lines up with the album’s motifs of guilt and sex, thus, in spite of it not being my favorite, it wraps up the album nicely.
The Air Force is one of many Xiu Xiu albums that I consider criminally underrated. It is reminiscent of the more-popular Fabulous Muscles, so it confuses me why it has not received more attention. Furthermore, it contains some of their most touching material. It is a worthwhile listen if you enjoy noisy-art pop, or melodramatic yet tasteful lyricism. I highly recommend.