No one does ugly like Xiu Xiu — ugly sex, ugly feelings, ugly America. The band’s queerness goes hand-in-hand (fist-in-ass) with its unrelenting abrasiveness. Its iconoclasm is born from the spew and spittle of abjection — all the dirt and rage of the rooms behind the rooms of the dive bar. Their latest, Always, opens with a call-out to anyone with a slit wrist, a rag in their mouth, anyone who wants to die, anyone already dead, anyone who’s simply alone tonight — and then proceeds to revel, madly, in this derelict community. Later, we encounter a beaten queer with a horse fetish, a sex-worker mom with cum on her face, an Afghani farm-boy with his dick cut off. Had enough yet? Jamie Stewart’s sexuality is not an identity category, but an affront, a queasy, unsettling counterforce in a brutally colonized landscape. If his songs seem emotionally unstable — by turns fierce and despairing, melancholic and committed — they are also inassimilable; like his voice itself, they consistently fail to stabilize, to cohere, as statements or expressions, and from within this dereliction raise their assault. A cry becomes a scream, a lullaby becomes an anthem, a dance tune turns punk, and a hymn goes coldwave. Musical ugliness everywhere becomes political ugliness, some ultimate ‘fuck you’ lodged at the level of taste and style at a whole wide world of exploitation and cruelty.
And yet, at the same time, Xiu Xiu’s music is unabashedly consolatory, reparative. As perhaps a clue to the band’s secret heart, Always takes its title from an Erasure song of the same name, a queer hymn to an impossible elsewhere, where “there will be no shame.” Stewart has dedicated the album (with its tattooed bicep on the cover) to his loyal fans, and he pays homage to the Erasure song as it sustained his own brother through a traumatic period in his life. His music as a whole, even in its ugliness, extends as it complicates this utopian dimension of queer music. The technicolor torch song, the dance paradise of the disco, the mournful elsewhere of Morissey’s new wave — Xiu Xiu everywhere extends these traditions even as it tweaks their clichés and co-optations. The opening number, “Hi,” coheres, even in its alienation, as a collective statement; with its mocking refrain — “say Hi” — it draws together a (non)community of queers, an ugly democracy of the lost, the bullied, and the maimed. “Born To Suffer,” a song dedicated to Haiti, builds on a crescendo of techno beats and synthesized arpeggios toward a moment of ecstatic power: Stewart sings the title phrase in fist-pumping triumph, and then whispers in the ear of the sufferer, “Try not to cry in public/ Try not to cry in public/ Try not to cry in the shower/ And try not cry at the clinic.”
But Xiu Xiu recognizes the consolation of ugliness itself — the consolation of the mutually fucked. Listening to the band is kinda like getting advice from someone who’s more messed up than yourself; Stewart is too honest to provide anything more than a recognition of shared despair, but somehow that’s more than enough. “Joey’s Song” offers solace from one traumatized brother to another, but does little to dampen or disavow the pain from which they both suffer. The song, with its manic beats and sinister children’s choir, burns its way toward an incredibly non-assuring refrain; when Stewart sings, “La La La La”, his voice itself comes across as no comforting choir, but sick, wasted, already gone. In “Factory Girl,” perhaps the most devastating song on the collection, Stewart sings for the sex workers and exploitative factory laborers of central China. “It’s no mean feat to fuck yourself in the ass”, he sings, “Yet how often we bring it off/ There is dignity in serenity/ And dignity too in a clenched fist/ Dedicated to a monstrous worthlessness.” Grace arises even here, not just in getting fucked, but in the abject aftermath, in the damaged goods of this brutal economy. “Thank you for making this purse,” he concludes, and you know he means it, his voice itself providing an offering, a small gift, as the final chords come crashing down and the beat skitters out into darkness.
These may all be queer clichés, but Xiu Xiu is so earnestly committed to its project that its music inevitably bursts through its own irony to the other side. Take, for example, the band’s remarkably buoyant cover of Rihanna’s “Only Girl in the World,” which came out last year as a B-side to a nightmarish rape narrative titled “Daphny.” While the gender inversion here could easily have been played for camp, the cover is more sincere, more urgent, sexier, even, than Rihanna’s cheeky original; the strings twist and bend around Stewart’s aching vocal until he hits the chorus and his voice opens up, a figure of sheer narcissistic pleasure tinged with coyness (the pleasure of the moment is compounded by a giddy sample from Detroit Grand Pubah’s “Sandwiches”). Stewart decided to cover the song after a transformative experience at a Durham dyke bar. In a recent interview, he explains how the mainstream song took on a completely different meaning in that setting, one that he tried to capture in his version: “And all of the women in the bar ran onto the dance floor and became completely elated by it. And it was this really wonderful moment of the most mainstream possible song that there is being completely recontextualized by this smallish and oppressed subculture. It was beautiful how sort-of naturally and freely this was occurring. I think it’s a cool song and everything, but covering it was essentially about trying to honor that moment more so than it was about the song itself.”
This momentous uncertainty — this refusal to stabilize the code, musical or otherwise — informs the Xiu Xiu project from first to last. We might even say that while the band is political, they’re too subtle to have a categorizable position; Stewart sings with force, but the anger in his voice often lacks any definite aim or object, and his despair seems to overwhelm all obvious causes. This too seems defiantly queer to me and still proves remarkably transgressive. Take, for example, the track “I Luv Abortion.” A shuddering synth line sets the tone for Stewart’s spoken word rant, the text of which was borrowed from a set of emails he received from a troubled friend. The schizoid arrangement lends itself to a series of contradictory statements, which at once dodge and bait the discourse of the right — “…I love abortion… when I look at my thighs I see death… you are too good for this world…” — all delivered with the same unhinged squall. While the song certainly seeks to outrage (abortion as protection from the right), it also makes room for innocence and motherhood both — let all you have lived be as if a dream!That’s nothing, though, compared to the excrescent ugliness of “Gul Mudin,” a song about a young Afghani boy tortured and murdered for fun by US soldiers. There’s no posturing, no lecturing, here, no smug irony or proud correctness — just a straightforward effort to comfort the dead boy and then a giant “10,000 mile-wide middle finger at the men and the institution that caused his death.” With Stewart’s performance, anxiety gives way to tenderness gives way to rage, as the song concludes with a fantasy that astoundingly matches the military’s actions in both sickness and brutality: satan’s hot cock rammed up the asses of Sgt. Gibbs and his men.
No doubt, with eight albums in, Xiu Xiu will face charges of self-parody and selling out (most likely from their own fans). I myself must confess that just as the band becomes more fluent in established forms of musical beauty — represented here by the new wave bounce of “Beauty Town” and “Honeysuckle” — I find myself yearning for the difficult ugliness of their earlier work. In a way, though, there’s a moment when every Xiu Xiu song reveals its beauty. With time, with habit, the dissonance and bombast starts to fade and you’re left with a single aching core of love and yearning. “Gul Mudin” contains a nearly perfect metaphor for this sonic trick. “Firefly seen by daylight,” sings Stewart, “Is but a bug/ Close your eyes, Mudin/ You’re aglow in the night.” Bugs like this will be lighting up the country as long as there’s a country to sing about. Xiu Xiu has been around for a while, but it is less a band or a trend that can fade with time than a critical germ cultivated and fed from within mainstream America. Such ugliness is for always.