Xiu Xiu is, at times, less of a band and more of a journey. Whether it be a journey through the album itself, or a more perilous journey through the inner workings of the mind of the band’s vocalist and driving force Jamie Stewart. More often than not these two things are one in the same, something most apparent on the band’s last output ‘Dear God, I Hate Myself’ which saw them take their black-as-treacle humour and noise manipulation fetishes tip-toeing into the realms of accessible almost-pop.
With ‘Always’ this journey continues although seemingly more as a band and less Jamie Stewart as an individual. “If you’re wasting your life say Hi” whispers Stewart on the opening track ‘Hi’ – a dissonant and bleak statement at first glance, but it quickly becomes apparent that this is the first hints at the album’s theme: Xiu Xiu is disturbed and you are invited to be disturbed too.
Produced by John Congleton (of The Paper Chase fame, a band whose albums rely heavily in building up, getting inside your head and taking full advantage once they’re in there) this is probably the closest Xiu Xiu have ever come to a ‘hi-fi’ record. However, it’s more the album’s construction than the richness of the bastardised electronics that grips me. With ‘Hi’ very much being the attention grabbing pop opener, the record increases in intensity with almost every second, becoming less and less listener friendly and leaving behind all notions of stability, and by the time track 5, ‘I Luv Abortion,’ throbs its way into existence, tumbling, screaming and vomiting for two and a half minutes before cutting abruptly, leaving you with the sense of an indelible stain imbuing the darkest recesses of your soul.
Just as all hope is lost of finding a path within this album again, haunting-piano-driven-dark-ballad ‘The Oldness’ extends a withered, weak hand to guide you through a delicate moment, backed by a distinctly John Congleton-esque ethereal choir of ghosts, before ‘Chimney’s Afire’ bursts into life like ‘Gray Death’ did on ‘Dear God, I hate myself’ – kickstarting the journey through the second half of this album with a bizarrely more analogue, or even acoustic feel (although acoustic instruments are few and far between).
Album closer ‘Black Drum Machine’ is akin to the incredibly disturbing track ‘The Wig Master’ from ‘Air Force’, lead heavily by arrhythmic string arrangements layered over lyrics like “Your Father was the first man inside you” before snapping and babbling a string of apologies.
Xiu Xiu have come one step closer to completing a journey with ‘Always’ – perverted pop laced with fear and self loathing and an open invitation for you to join in too.