America is many countries, not just one. It’s misleading to think we’re one homogenous nation just because of lines on a map. We’re a collection of states that never agree on much of anything, and yet we persist in calling ourselves one country. We’re probably more accurately about five different countries all bolted together with sentimental mythology and legal paperwork. Where we’re born doesn’t always fit with who we are. Some of us feel pulled in lots of directions as we try to live our lives in the wrong places. As I play and reflect on the record “Always” by Xiu Xiu (Polyvinyl 2012), I can’t get too far from the feeling that this entire record is a kind of loud broadcast from someone living in the wrong place, deeply angry and frustrated by mediocrity and cruelty, surrounded by a veneer of false happiness and false image. “A child is nothing without hate,” proclaims one of many tattoos photographed for the poster/lyric sheet that comes with the vinyl LP.
There’s certainly a lot of anger behind some of the 12 songs on this challenging record. I think it’s interesting when artists make us think more deeply about anger, its locations in society and its sources, and the long-term damage it creates. And America is an angry place right now. As I listen to these songs, especially “Hi,” “I Luv Abortion,” “Born to Suffer,” and “Factory Girl,” I hear a kind of deliberate slow-burning anger in these lyrics, focused and targeted, born out of a deep feeling of unfair treatment and abuse, wrapped up in electronic dance music. There’s almost a kind of Scott Walker vocal darkness going on here, on this record more than on any other Xiu Xiu record, and it’s disturbing.
So what’s the point of Jamie Stewart‘s provocation? Why is this such an angry record for his fans who love him so much? The born social activist turned musician fails if he writes scathing lyrics about suicide, assault, and exploitation, and no one reacts. The whole point of being provocative is to get a reaction. The reaction Stewart gets will then shape his next move, record after record.
Stewart is a bold and imaginative and angry writer who wants to make every song, soft and loud alike, register on his scale of provocation. And it’s working. The music press bristles with quotes and commentary about how miserable they think Stewart is. But I think this misses the point. “Always” isn’t whining and complaining. It’s not one man’s miserable life in song. It’s more sophisticated than one person’s upset. I think “Always” is designed to shock first, inspire reflection and possibly change next, and entertain last.
Which is what I find so challenging about records like this. The music is energized and almost exuberant, inventively celebrating the medium and playing with textures and technology. And yet the lyrics are dark and angry and, at times, deeply upsetting, such as in “Factory Girl” and “Smear the Queen.” “Honey-Suckle” is on the upbeat and bouncy side, musically, yet it’s a relentless portrait of ruined days and resignation: “Yesterday was awful/Today’s discolored.” Jamie Stewart’s work challenges me to expand my definition for the range of experimental music into socially biting electronic music. Once again, this takes his work close to that of Scott Walker. Soundscapes can be shaped into generating sentimental feelings while the lyrics thread their way through damaged lives and dead ends.
I don’t think it matters if an artist writes dark novels or dark music, the darkness sets up a partial barrier to some levels of enjoyment and interaction. For example, I loved the book The Road by Cormac McCarthy, but I haven’t as yet read it through a second time, nor could I finish watching the film based on the book (parts of the film are terrifying). The creators of such works must know they have this effect. I think it’s important that I read and have The Road on my bookshelf, but it keeps me at a distance, except for the occasional dip into its pages for a particular passage or quote. When I first played “Always” all the way through, I was left speechless. It came at me sonically and linguistically like a hammer. Even the quieter moments on this record, the song “The Oldness” and “Factory Girl,” for example, aren’t places of refuge. They’re just quieter counterpoints that pass quickly, and then the storm rages again.
We need a way to navigate through the darkness of modern life, so it’s essential that we have novelists like Cormac McCarthy and musicians like Jamie Stewart. Nightmares abound. Sadly, many of the nightmares that become real are created and kept in place by human beings. There’s a poetry in the work of Jamie Stewart, a dark poetry to be sure, but a very human heart and very human hurt behind the carefully chosen words in his songs. Maybe it all comes down to the choice to rebel or to accept mediocrity. In the end, some artists have little or no choice of how they proceed. Some rebels are born, some are made. Stewart is a born rebel and probably has been all his life. It’s what made him the artist he is today, and it’s what makes me want to keep his work close by. “Always” will be one of those records that I play just occasionally, every playing challenging me to extend my concept of Xiu Xiu, and to live, for a time, with one artist’s vision of things I hadn’t faced before.