Xiu Xiu - Always

Much like a pungent stilton, this is difficult prospect to recommend or advise against.

From the brain of Jamie Stewart, architect of experimental outfit Xiu Xiu, comes their eleventh album, ‘Always’. An enterprise that has spanned ten albums, a decade of performing and a revolving door policy of band members is difficult to summarise to those unschooled in the phenomenon that is Xiu Xiu. Encompassing punk, synth and rock influences, the history of the band is musically rich, varied, and controversial. One thing though, has remained a constant over their journey – also seeing them span six record labels – the music is challenging, bold and sometimes difficult to listen to.

It is has been said, in the past, that Xiu Xiu sound a bit like Arcade Fire. There’s no dancing around it. Sometimes it has been a subtle suggestion, sometimes more pronounced, (the pop culture equivalent being: Gee whiz, doesn’t Born This Way sound like Express Yourself, etc.) The opening tracks of ‘Always’, ‘Hi’ and ‘Joey’s Song’, do nothing to refute this comparison, ‘Joey’s Song’ sounding particularly similar to the Fire.

‘Hi’, though, is a strong start to any album. Vocals rest with frailty across the bones of the track, cracking and braking with emotion (think Perfume Genius having an extremely upsetting and hormonal day.) As the album rumbles on, the tracks get darker, and more disturbing: ‘I Love Abortion’ is an assault on the ears, as apocalyptic electronica battles against shouted, strangled lyrics (imagine the Talking Heads’ ‘Once In A Lifetime’ with post-watershed lyrical content.) While bold and unique, the discordant racket will have many a neutral listener reaching for the off-switch.

As a whole package, ‘Always’ can seem dissatisfying, as if somehow the sum of its parts amounts to less than the songs are individually worth. However, this sense of confusion and lack of coherence is almost certainly a deliberate effort on the part of Stewart: this is an album to be grappled with, one on one, rather than enjoyed in the bath or the car. It requires an active effort of listening experience – playing this album as background music would be a serious disservice to its potential.

After the deafening noise of ‘I Love Abortion’, tracks like ‘The Oldness’ and ‘Factory Girl’ return the album’s pace to more mellow ground. This mixture of tone and mood should be counted as a blessed relief, as if Stewart had charted his course too close to any one of these approaches, the result would have been unlistenable. Much like a pungent stilton, this is difficult prospect to recommend or advise against, especially if this is your first experience of Xiu Xiu. Dip your toe in the water, though, and there are bits to love.

Tags: Xiu Xiu, Reviews, Album Reviews

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