One wonders where Xiu Xiu's Jamie Stewart would be without his songs. If songwriting is his way out of pain—his way to contextualize life's darkest moments—one might imagine he'd be in a world of hurt without music. Instead, Stewart morphs his pain into the painfully beautiful. By translating heartache and darkness into striking lyricism and clever arrangements, Stewart momentarily shakes free from the weight of life, revealing that pain, as its own entity, can be a glorious thing—a glory that is evident in each of Xiu Xiu's six albums, including their newest, Women as Lovers.
"To put any difficult, intense feeling into song, to give it meaning outside of the overwhelming..." Stewart pauses and then clarifies, "It's a way to make it real. It's not some figment—something beautiful is in fact occurring."
It's hard to explain why something beautiful is occurring. But beauty—in its most naked state—occurs eternally within Xiu Xiu's songs. This is not the beauty of stillness or surface, but rather that of movement and depth. Stewart delves into subjects most would rather not (sexuality, incest, torture, etc.) and comes up with something true—a truth that strips its listeners of all preconceptions and judgmental notions, touching them deeply without feeling obliged to explain just why.
For the song "In Lust You Can Hear the Axe Fall" (off the new album), Stewart explores humanity's intrinsic desire for pain. Without its inexplicable intensity, clearly, we would be bored. "Where does it hurt?/Without fuss, set my finger there," he demands, his distorted vocals quivering over an instrumental arrangement close to doom. "To touch it, touch it, touch it, touch it/Who there is who is not bored by this fate?"
Stewart's songs—made complete by keyboardist Caralee McElroy and drummer Ches Smith—are neither for the faint of heart nor for the casual listener. Born out of difficulty, they are certainly not easy. Xiu Xiu's sound builds from muffled and desperate to unfettered and cacophonous—it's as though 100 geese were shivering quietly in a field one moment and, in the next, are suddenly startled into disorderly flight. Amid the discordant arrangement of percussion and brass, a haunting quality permeates Stewart's songs, escaping the speakers like warnings to the weary, as if to say: Be light, but know your own darkness.
"You had a dream about loss/Within the fruit there are worms/Yet still a vow to dare 'good night!'" Stewarts sings in a hushed and tempered tone atop a strangely catchy melody and snappy taps to the drum kit. "You had a dream about love/Could it be you are the one who is waiting patiently for me/to disregard caution/to feign deafness to protest."
In the years since Xiu Xiu's first LP, they have lost and gained members, performed hundreds of times, covered a handful of Smiths songs (Stewart is enamored with Morrissey), and recorded a spectrum of sounds from acoustic and stark to dense and chaotic, all of which are painfully beautiful, giving the listener an opportunity to momentarily experience an untouchable truth not found in everyday life.
"The songs are always specifically about something," Stewart says by phone from his home in San Francisco. "They are emotionally attached to a specific thing. The songs will always attempt to be an emotional commentary."
Deerhoof's Greg Saunier worked with Xiu Xiu in recording and producing Women as Lovers, which is named after the Elfriede Jelinek novel of the same name. It was the first time Xiu Xiu had recorded an album with a live drummer (Smith) as opposed to a drum machine.
"There was a characterization to how the drums were recorded and they changed the inflection," explains Stewart. "We were doing things really different. And not being devoted to any one way of doing things, the experience was unlike anything before."
Women as Lovers—arguably their most accessible record to date, which by no means makes it conventionally accessible—is a dramatic, forceful album of fragmented, yet oddly appealing instrumentation, including the Wurlitzer, vibraphone, gong, chime, and kalimba (a sound box with metal keys). In one instant, a song may be alone and desperate, threatening to let go the crumbling edge on which it hangs, and, in the next, it explodes, spitting shards of untamed anger in all directions. It's sad and mad and full of passion. Kind of like life. Just like pain.