There’s a popular myth that art is how mankind overhauls the world and its own facticity. At least centuries old, this quaint doctrine began assuming its present form with the Age of Enlightenment, when the establishment realized that they could more efficiently propagate the era’s burgeoning form of Rationality by siphoning it into the arts. Music, painting, and literature were to be reformative and edifying, or rather, they were to be used by the nascent middle and capitalistic classes to differentiate themselves from the skid-marked riffraff they wanted to leave in the mud. With their bourgeois ascent, the arts became a remedial and revelatory extension of academia and the sciences, a mechanism through which people could renovate and purge themselves of all the superstitious, irrational, and impulsive crap that had blighted their feral life throughout the middle ages. And with the incremental democratization of knowledge that grew slowly out of the Gutenberg Revolution, it seemed that self-improvement (i.e., social-ladder climbing) was open to all, a mere Rousseau pamphlet away.
Well, clearly no one has ever told Jamie Stewart about this little period in human history. Or if they have, he’s doing an untouchable job of consigning it to its proverbial dustbin, because for over a decade, his music as Xiu Xiu has been a paragon of artistic integrity. And yet apparently nothing has improved or been rectified for him. In fact, with Angel Guts: Red Classroom, his situation appears only to be deteriorating, subsiding further into extremity, isolation, and self-destruction with every pared-down scrap of rust that supposedly offers itself as a lesson to be learned. Its dingy post-punk and fractious synth-pop marks an uncharted entry for Stewart into the morbid, the depraved, but without offering even the tiniest suggestion that its brutal candor will ever translate into the beginnings of personal or collective rehabilitation. And it’s this denial, more than anything else, that transforms the album not only into a characteristically jarring and uncomfortable listen, but also into one prolonged disavowal of Enlightenment and modernist thinking, of any idealism that believes we can dissolve our problems simply by broadcasting them again and again under the voyeuristic ceiling of an art gallery or concert hall.
Photo credit: James Wood
That said, Xiu Xiu aren’t anti- or post-modernist on Angel Guts simply because they’ve failed to heed the warnings of their own documentation and evolve as human beings. No, they also qualify as anti-Reformist or anti-Utopian by virtue of how they paint said human beings. A song like “Stupid in the Dark,” with its squalid analog keys and industrial whip-cracks of static, lamp the homo sapien as irremediably fallible and ignorant, as congenitaly prone to misperceptions and miscalculations he or she can never preempt. Its frigid chorus runs, “People are stupid in the dark/ People are useless in the moonlight,” alleging over crystalline turns of synth that darkness and rash spontaneity are the omnipreset media through which the individual navigates the world, and that consequently nothing can systematically be done to revamp their circumstances for the better.
And if Xiu Xiu can be trusted, such circumstances are terminally dire, with Stewart divining ugliness and decay under every ostensibly innocent rock. Every subject and object on Angel Guts is twisted into a contorted reflection of his ever precarious state of mind, reeled through a filter of dank Moogs and stark 1970s drum machines that only heightens the stripped emaciation he projects out of himself and onto our world. Unsurprisingly for an album named after a Japanese erotic noir, sex is a recurring theme over the 14 musty exercises in degradation, but for today’s Stewart, it’s more of a figure for his own mortality and frailty than anything else. For example, on “Black Dick,” he uses interracial fornication to evoke images of death and domination, with the song’s innocuous entrance oiling into the memento mori, “Black dick on table/ One ball like a skull.” Later, as its electro-bass lurches toward a discordant climax, Stewart then groans, “One thrust turns the key/ The other thrust releases the brakes,” implying that all human interactions essentially boil themselves down to expressions of power.
But Angel Gut’s pessimism and cynicism doesn’t stop there, because later jeremiads like “Bitter Melon” witness Xiu Xiu taking shots not at mere human stupidity and human relations, but at something as fundamental as the individual’s ability to trust the reality of his or her own desires and motivations. Over doleful, withdrawn backing, Stewart accuses an unnamed addressee of harboring a “fantasy curled upon a fantasy,” before forebodingly asking, “Can I ever face you truly enough?/ Can I ever smile at you honestly enough?” He then answers his own question with the line, “I cannot,” as the elegiac percussion of the chorus plays out underneath. More importantly, this doubting of the substance of his own person merges seamlessly with the unwavering trajectory of his career within predominately bleak territory, in that the latter could easily be read as a trenchant comment or critique on the inconsequentiality of music and art, their inability to make a difference to lives that hasn’t already been sanctioned and instigated by political currents.
Maybe this is taking things too far, yet the fact that Stewart is no happier or better off for having been a fertile musician is, for all intents and purposes, an unwitting negation of the purportedly transformative power of music, an exposure of its ultimate vacuity and insignificance. And there is something unnervingly incorporeal and inanimate about Angel Guts, something that infuses its largely austere instrumentation with a hollowed echo. This is heard in “Archie’s Fades,” where Stewart affects ghoulish vocals, and where a synthesized approximation of the three-note vamp from “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” rings out as some kind of ashen specter. Funnily enough, this is a specter that haunts the rest of the album to a certain extent, since we hear pretty much the same vamp again in “Black Dick,” and this time it underlines the album’s weakness, which is that in contrast to previous Xiu Xiu records, there’s a narrower range of musical ideas on display, with the fearless subject matter not quite finding a perfect counterpart in the sometimes cautious arrangements. Instead of the varieties of structure, texture, and color audible on, say, Always and Dear God, I Hate Myself, everything is more honed and restricted. While this unquestionably emphasizes core themes of destitution, destruction, and death, it hampers the overall aesthetic and emotional range.
But this isn’t to say that the range it occupies wants for impact and intensity. Moments of its 44 minutes are as hard to stomach as anything Xiu Xiu are ever likely to record, such as the romance-cum-suicide pact detailed in the glassy “New Life Immigration,” the turbulent electronic squall that puts “Lawrence Liquors” to bed, and the vertiginous desperation of “Cinthya’s Unisex,” where an asphyxiated Stewart recounts an episode of double penetration in all its grisly debasement. And it’s precisely these instances of neurotic grotesquerie that make Angel Guts such a vicious rebuttal of any kind of humanistic confidence and meliorism, even if it could be argued that its obsessive framing of sin, subversion, and everything else in a negative light would imply Stewart’s subscription to a certain image or yardstick of “the Good.” Maybe this is just wishful thinking on our part, yet even if we’re now imputing a binary opposition where there isn’t one, and even if the optimism of Enlightenment and modernist thinking is grossly unfounded with regard to the arts, we can at least rest assured that, if nothing else, Xiu Xiu know how to make some laudably fucked-up music.