Professional athletes who manage lengthy careers fall into two broad categories. There are the All-Star level talents who quickly become the focal points of their respective franchises, the image of a team’s public face, and the ambassador of team-fan relations. Those below that tier, who wish to remain employed for a decade or longer, carve out a niche for themselves by doing one specific, inimitable thing consistently and well. Sometimes a role player will fulfill their niche so well that they become indispensable talents in their own right — think of Ichiro Suzuki’s maniacal propensity for base hits or Dennis Rodman’s nose for rebounds — and eventually gain the recognition (and responsibility) that comes with stardom.
Enter Xiu Xiu, who for the last 10 years have served as a Sixth Man on the Indie Rock All-Star team. They have garnered their share of critical attention, popping up on year-end lists and earning reputation as one of the most dynamic and volatile live acts of the new millennium. Over their career, they have become a bankable commodity — one can always count on a Xiu Xiu record to contain its share of freakouts, New Order-esque pop choruses, vocals that alternate between a plaintive whisper and primal screaming, kitchen-sink instrumentation, and traumatic lyrics — which makes them all the more valuable as time passes. Their evolution has been contained within their distinctive sonic universe (there is no “genre hopping” in their ouevre, thank god), which has always seemed hermetically sealed and fully formed upon arrival. Instead of branching out, Xiu Xiu have simply continued to refine their own unmistakable voice. As with role players on sports teams, our appreciation of Xiu Xiu depends entirely on our expectations: if we want them to produce indie/noise classics and/or break into new territory with every release, we will be disappointed. If instead we come to cherish their consistency and ask only that they continually refine their niche, we will find them to be indispensable contributors to our alt/indie landscape.
Now seven full-lengths into their career, Xiu Xiu have hit a milestone with Dear God, I Hate Myself. Over 12 songs, they condense the best aspects of all their previous albums to craft what may prove to be their finest hour. For the length of their career, Xiu Xiu have teetered on razor’s edge between overdriven noise and electro-acoustic pop, sometimes leaning more towards the former (Knife Play) and other times toward the latter (Fabulous Muscles), but here the two are in lock step and complement each other perfectly. For a band known for its histrionics and penchant for melodramatic, borderline exploitative lyrics — either their greatest strength or their most annoying affectation, depending on your disposition — this record certainly doesn’t shy away from the characterization: when Jamie Stewart sings “If you expect me to be outrageous, I will be extra outrageous” in the first verse on the record, you know what to expect. Several tracks, including “Chocolate Makes You Happy,” lead single “Gray Death,” “Secret Motel,” or even the title song, could be used as a four-minute summary of Xiu Xiu’s stylistic repertoire. There are a surprising number of hummable hooks scattered throughout the record and most songs follow the form of verse-chorus-verse-freakout (or simply “the Xiu Xiu part”)-chorus, resulting in a record that may be the most consistent and accessible in their canon without steering away from the upsetting, bizarre, and dissonant elements of their previous six.
Fans who have been following Jamie Stewart et al from the beginning may feel fatigued with the relative lack of diversity within Xiu Xiu’s discography, and a style that trades heavily in shock value and “outrageousness” will never have the same impact on any iteration after its first. That said, while no tracks on Dear God, I Hate Myself are as memorable as early gems such as “I Broke Up (SJ)” or “Ian Curtis Wishlist,” they may represent the strongest collection of songs Xiu Xiu has released yet. I hope that wizened heads will not gloss over what fresh ears might hear in Dear God: a defining achievement from an accomplished, veteran group.