If your life is a living hell, Xiu Xiu can relate to that
As far as inclusivity goes, it’s not bad. “If you are wasting your life say ‘Hi,’ ” Jamie Stewart sings on the opening track of Xiu Xiu’s new album, Always. “If you are alone tonight say ‘Hi,’ ”
By our calculation, those two lines embrace a large majority of the population, but the singer goes on to shake hands with all those whose “bed is a living hell”, as well as with those whose “body is wrong” and who “regret residing in it”.
It’s hard not to jump up and hail Stewart as the new king of the loners, especially as his lyrics are delivered to a house-influenced beat strong enough to drag even the terminally introverted onto the dance floor. Based on his self-effacing nature, we doubt Stewart will claim his title—but if he and keyboardist Angela Seo succeed in making their listeners feel a little less unloved, then they’ll have done their duty.
“That’s certainly the point of the record: to try to, in the tiniest possible way, create some small community,” Stewart says via cellphone from a Chicago tour stop. “And to acknowledge the fact that almost everybody’s life, at one time or another, or usually, sucks.
“In pop, in particular, it can be a little bit socially unacceptable to talk about that too much or to acknowledge how widespread the rottenness of living is,” he adds. “But, yeah, ‘Hi’ was an attempt to create a song about that whole idea.”
It’s not a radical concept: as Stewart notes, a lot of club music masks a powerful sense of longing behind high-energy rhythms.
“That’s really where the idea for the band came from in the first place: from this one particular night, being at a dance club, and being in almost a fit of really deep loneliness, as clichéd as that sounds,” he says. “And really being struck by how incredibly sad a lot of the lyrics in dance music are, and how directly sad they are.…But the musical part of it—the celebratory part, in a lot of house and a lot of club music—is about using the physicality of the dance floor to change that negative energy into something else.”
Stewart admits that on earlier Xiu Xiu albums he focused primarily on his own traumas, hoping to find some kind of “palliative” effect through art. Always marks a turning point in that all but one of its songs draw on the experiences of others. Typically, he puts a downbeat spin on this new extroversion: “My own life seemed to be taking on a kind of almost negative stasis,” he says, “and there really didn’t seem to be much to write about.”
But the record, as he’s already hinted, reflects both a new level of politicized engagement with the world and a willingness to engage in acts of extreme empathy. “Gul Mudin”, for instance, eulogizes an unarmed Afghan teen killed by U.S. soldiers in 2010, while “I Luv Abortion” is sung from the viewpoint of a pregnant teen, unwilling to give birth to a child she can’t care for. Stewart’s visceral identification with both subjects is convincing, and powerful evidence that—on this record, at least—he’s no longer alone.
Xiu Xiu plays the Biltmore Cabaret on Monday (May 28).