Xiu Xiu's latest is a well developed, anxious victory lap.
Xiu Xiu are a tricky group to pin down. Primarily the brainchild of vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Jamie Stewart, the band have put out over 30 different albums since releasing Knife Play in 2002, almost all of which embrace a difficult, often quite inaccessible experimental rock sound, merged with pop and industrial too. Their albums may be hit or miss, but Stewart’s vocals are always a real standout with his emotive and intentionally unrefined singing contrasting the usually quite sparse and yet aggressive backings. As with a lot of underground music, the internet has led to the group developing a small cult fanbase, one that seems to have grown faster since the group released their Plays the Music of Twin Peaks album in 2016 which is, you guessed it, a series of covers of the soundtrack for David Lynch’s cult favourite TV series, Twin Peaks. Girl With a Basket of Fruit, released in 2019, was also more of a hit than most of the band’s output, and interested soon pointed these new fans towards the earlier music, with fantastic records like A Promise and, my personal favourite, Fabulous Muscles.
And so, the release of OH NO may be Xiu Xiu’s most anticipated release yet, after their almost 20 years of working, and thankfully it maintains their experimental attitude towards music. Notably, every single track on here has another artist featured on it (an element of the record that makes it especially funny looking back to Green Day’s embarrassing advertising for their most recent flop, Father of All Motherfuckers, which proudly claimed ‘NO FEATURES’ and, perhaps more embarrassingly, ‘100% PURE CUT ROCK’), ushering in that experimental approach. Stewart’s vocals seem also to have matured into something altogether weirder, sounding a little like the late (and utterly brilliant) Scott Walker in the midst of getting lost in some of the noisier elements of the instrumentation, which often follows the same progression on a track of starting quite gently, before ending with a mix of noise and discomfort, a gradual build to an uncomfortable cacophony – this is maybe best seen on the track ‘Goodbye for Good’. The title track is a pleasant switch-up, the synths that open it are gorgeous, and the song generally is almost impossibly beautiful – maybe even a little reminiscent of Bjork’s masterpiece Vespertine.
It’s an odd record, as to be expected from Xiu Xiu by now, but it does feel like a kind of victory lap of many of their best properties. It’s strange, it’s uncomfortable, it’s beautiful and it has great range, but it does seem to lack a cohesion that would really make it stick. The tracks feel quite disconnected (other than by their progression, that escalation from calm to chaos), and the general inaccessibility to some of the sound can be off-putting at first, but of course, Xiu Xiu don’t care too much about that and keep their focus on chasing the sound that they’ve developed into whichever direction interests them, which may be their best characteristic as a band, so I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s certainly an album that’ll take a couple of listens to fully sink into, but great records often work that way, and this is another one in what already seems to be a fantastic year for music. Xiu Xiu’s frantic, anxious sound is here to stay.
Xiu Xiu’s OH NO was distributed by Polyvinyl – listen to the album on Spotify below: