by Caroline Smith
Girl with Basket of Fruit opens with the lyrics “Take a break / The pressure rips her apart / The baby duck in you has died.” As perplexing as they are, they’re also evocative, eliciting imagery of abortion, miscarriage, sexual violence or rape; each interpretation that sneaks into your mind more disturbing than the last. This feeling is at the heart of Girl with Basket of Fruit. It is, overall, a political album that is actually genuinely unsettling—one that sinks its claws into you and holds you steady in its grips; an album that stays with you long past its run-time.
Sonically, the album is almost ritualistic in its adherence to repetitive, industrial percussion and static, ambient distortion—all over-layed by frontman Jamie Stewart’s eerie, uncomfortably-close-to-the-mic vocals. On title track and opener “Girl with Basket of Fruit,” he alternates between pained yelling and spoken, cavalier one-liners. On penultimate track and lead-single “Scisssssssors,” his theatrically whispered vocals are sincerely frightening, almost like they’ve been plucked out of a horror movie. The dramatic and dynamic nature of Stewart’s vocals is a majorly impressive highlight of Girl with a Basket of Fruit, securing his position as one of the most fascinating and imaginative frontmen working today. Apart from the final track “Normal Love,” a surprisingly simple and emotional ballad, Girl with Basket of Fruit is filled with songs of grinding and glitchy industrial noise, absolutely unrelenting in its brutal vision.
Aside from sonic brutality, however, is the album’s deep thematic interest in violence. Girl with Basket of Fruit is thoroughly invested in forcing its listener to come face-to-face with the most disturbing aspects of American life, and this comes through most clearly on “Mary Turner Mary Turner,” where Stewart graphically describes the lynching of pregnant woman Mary Turner in 1918 for protesting against the lynching of her husband, Hazel Turner. After three and a half minutes of unflinchingly relaying the barbaric details of her death, Stewart leaves you with this, whispered so low it’s almost indecipherable: “Fuck your guns / Fuck your war / Fuck your truck / Fuck your flag.” Stewart’s proclamation that this is our history—that this is what we call freedom, liberty, equality—is the most disturbing and affecting moment of the album. In fact, it’s a moment that I haven’t been able to shake since I heard it. It’s certifiably frightening, in a way that most politically-charged music isn’t. For me, this is because the album doesn’t attempt to call for change, or at least not explicitly. It’s not a call to action. Instead, it’s more of a reminder, one that sticks our faces into the most disgusting and upsetting parts of our history, and reminds us that this is white America. This is what it meant to be white in the United States in the early 20th century, only a few generations ago. It begs the question: Where does this leave us now?
I think Xiu Xiu tackles that question headfirst in “It Comes Out as a Joke,” a sentiment that’s repeated on “Girl with Basket of Fruit.” It is hard to grasp the truly horrific racial and sexual violence that underscores our country, much of which is proliferated in the form of police brutality. It is hard to talk about this history in a manner that is as serious as the subject commands. It is hard, so we don’t talk about it. And when we do, “it comes out a great and deformed joke.”
Compared to their last (and most accessible) release, 2017’s FORGET, Girl with Basket of Fruit feels intentionally challenging. While I’m far from arguing that esotericism is what makes experimental music “good,” in the case of this album, the extreme abstraction is an impressive feat. Xiu Xiu has never been afraid to make their listeners uncomfortable; to plant imagery in our heads that both disturbs and intrigues us; to exploit our interest (and our fear) of the dark underbelly of our world. Girl with Basket of Fruit is an impactful and boundary-pushing foray into the white supremacist, sexist, violent history of the United States, all wrapped in a package of expertly composed industrial noise.