Polyvinyl · March 26, 2021
There is some music you cannot enter into lightly. It takes a cautionary warning, maybe a few deep breaths, before diving in. Then the music splatters all over you, screams in your face, and shakes you. This is Xiu Xiu. The duo, composed of Jamie Stewart and Angela Seo, have had a long history with the experimental realm. Their sound is stuffed with quaking synths and vocalist Jamie Stewart oscillating from a quivering whimper to an anguished bellow. Usually going at it alone on these musical exploits, the pair took a different path for their 12th album. OH NO introduces their first duet album: each track pairs Xiu Xiu with a different musician, making for a star-studded indie cast. The collaborators include Alice Bag of ‘70s punk band the Bags, Chelsea Wolfe, and Drab Majesty. The journey even resulted in a seeming erosion of Stewart’s misanthropy: “The guest stars…helped remind me that the ratio of beautiful humans to shitty humans is more like 60/40 rather than what I have always assumed was 1/99,” he said in an interview. OH NO reflects this attitude, even within the dark subject matter of some tracks.
OH NO cracks open the darker subjects inside Stewart’s mind, as seen on “I Dream of Someone Else Entirely,” a song about the complicated, abusive relationship between Stewart and his parents. It opens up with dizzying synths and with a distanced Stewart singing, “Two stomped upon children dressed up as parents.” The song talks about generational trauma, and how the abuse his parents suffered in childhood was transferred onto him and his siblings. It is the most vulnerable of the tracks, with residual hurt radiating from the main line, “I dream of someone else entirely.” Although Stewart recognizes that his parents’ cruelty was born out of their own traumas, he still bears the scars he wishes he never had. Similarly, “Saint Dymphna” refers to a seventh-century saint who was abused and eventually murdered by her father. With heavy, crashing drums, guest vocalist Twin Shadow and Stewart sing about someone experiencing abuse, offering the support that “He is not what you are / His life is not the end.” The track is brutal in its description of the abusive relationship, with shaky, echoing sounds that build onto each other, carrying the song to a moving, cinematic climax. It sends a message of support that even in this tragedy, there is hope.
True to Xiu Xiu’s typical style, the album also features more experimental tracks such as “A Classic Screw,” which devolves into an artistic nightmare of sound in the middle, then stabilizes only to end in chaotic screeching. Abrasive noises that sound like they were plucked from a horror film are also inserted in the middle of “It Bothers Me All The Time,” juxtaposing the subdued nature of the rest of the track, and ironically satisfying the message of the lyric “It bothers me all the time.” One of the more ‘accessible’ tracks on the album is “Rumpus Room,” a song which is both gritty and dancey. Jamie Stewart and Angus Andrew of Liars sing a chaotic, yet surprisingly catchy, chorus and somehow manage to make Flaming Hot Cheetos and Little Debbies sound evil. When first hearing it, the song sounds almost nonsensical, as if Stewart and Andrew are in a competition to name drop the most snack brands. However, when listening closely, the lyrics conjure the image of teenage adolescence and days of locking yourself in your room to stare at your computer until 4 a.m., red cheeto dust saturating your fingers.
The collaborative aspect of the album is what makes this project unique among Xiu Xiu’s myriad of other works. Liz Harris’s light and airy voice on “A Bottle of Rum” offers sugar to Stewart’s bitter lemon energy. There’s a delicate conversation between Stewart and Sharon Van Etton on “Sad Mezcalita” that delivers a beautiful introduction to the album. Their back-and-forth over simplistic synths blossoms into a tethered chorus that sounds as dreamlike as the song’s lyrics. Greg Saunier accompanies Stewart the whole way on “Goodbye for Good,” offering a fatalist tone to the track. The lines “Plants find you disgusting /…You think they are beautiful / They are waiting for you to suffocate” adds weight to the track, with Saunier’s heavy voice contrasting Stewart’s tone of trembling desperation.
On OH NO, Xiu Xiu invite collaborators onto their weird and wild turf, challenging them to fit in. The 15 tracks offer their own dreamlike atmosphere, filled with bizarre or challenging messages. A well-acquainted listener will be surprised by the quietness that “Sad Mezcalita” opens the album with, as well as the quirky concluding optimism on “ANTS.” What fills out the rest of the album, however, is Xiu Xiu’s signature eccentricity.