I’ll admit it: the first time I listened to a Xiu Xiu record, it made me desperately crave a shower. I couldn’t sleep properly for days. With that in mind, Always might be the ninth record to come out of Jamie Stewart’s experimental brainchild Xiu Xiu over their ten year existence, but it’s also an apt introduction to this, the most challenging of bands. Certainly, it’s a much more welcoming record than it’s predecessors – perhaps the band’s most accessible yet (the first track is even called Hi), but at its core this is still a Xiu Xiu record, made by the same people who rather seriously named their last effort Dear God, I Hate Myself.
Don’t be frightened; for all their shock-value and experimentalism, Always is, as one would expect from a Xiu Xiu record: an entirely fascinating listen. The aforementioned opener Hi sets the foundations early: ‘if you’re wasting your life, say “hi”, if you’re alone tonight say “hi”’ – not the most pleasant opening gambit to say the least. Born To Suffer takes an electro throb and creates an unrelenting, paranoid ode to pessimism, building to a glitch-rave climax. A few tracks in though, Honeysuckle presents a reprieve in the most outright ‘pop’ track in the band’s entire ten years. Sung by Angela Seo, the current creative partner for the project, never has such morbidity been set to music so beautiful – not even by Morrissey, who just happens to be an idol for Stewart. Cases for positive musical development continue as Gul Mudin possesses one of the most fully realised progressions to ever come from a Xiu Xiu track. As always however, it contains a lyrical gem that can be found on any record; in this case it’s the ever-so disturbing ‘hell is hot, hell is hot, Satan’s cock, hell is hot’.
Oddness aside, Always is also the band’s most political release since 2005’s La Forêt. Despite the flippant first impression from its title, I Love Abortion bears a brutally direct pro-choice message over frantic glitches and the sound of barking dogs. The three other politically natured songs that follow all benefit from sparse instrumentation, amplifying the impact of Stewart’s lyrics. Factory Girl is an unsettling comment on the migration of rural Chinese women to the factories, detailing the inhumane treatment behind the clothing label; meanwhile, Smear The Queen and Black Drum Machine tackle hate crime and child abuse respectively. It’s worth noting that each and every Xiu Xiu song is at least partially about lived experiences, whether voyeuristic or personal.
Yes, critics, listeners, and fans alike are right to view this as difficult music. However, when the music is so refreshingly honest as this, albums like Always should be more than deserving of that extra amount of attention. In fact, ten years on, even the fact that Stewart’s fractured world continues to carve out its own niche should be reason enough. Xiu Xiu for life.