- I’d say that if you’ve listened to Xiu Xiu in the past then you probably know Xiu Xiu, but that really isn’t true. Jamie Stewart and (by now surely permanent as if she’s always been there) Angela Seo have gone in almost as many directions as there are in music via their very regular release schedule. Oh, they have a new drummer now, too: David Kendrick and are joined by twenty or so chamber musicians; just so you know. Anyway, somehow, even at their sweetest, like on 2021’s album of duets, Oh No, there’s a ghastly continuity to the Xiu Xiu oeuvre. Perhaps it’s Stewart’s haunting, fluting voice? There’s not really any song it couldn’t turn into the soundtrack for the maze of horror at the creaky old carnival grounds. On Xiu Xiu’s latest, Ignore Grief, it often seems like you don’t get that ghostly guide. The record’s supposed to be split between industrial grinding and ‘post-classical’ ...or have they in fact been fed through a woodchipper at the same time, completely obscuring any vocal accompaniment? To be fair, there are jump-scares from the very soft to the ear-bleedingly loud and I suppose in those hushed moments before the trauma thunders in I can actually tell, ‘oh, that’s Jamie, or oh, that’s Angela singing’. More often their voices are lost like moths fluttering in the midst of a bonfire; the narrator incinerated, leaving you to only guess at what horror transpired here. Despite my earlier protestations, however, one thing you won’t have any trouble working out: this is a Xiu Xiu record!
Apparently, Stewart met producer Jon Congleton (around the time of the Always album in 2012?) and Congleton suggested, rather than just dreaming up individual fragments of lacerating emotion, Xiu Xiu work should include some kind of thematic skeleton and each ensuing record has got that, or they’re just outright concept records. The vision for Ignore Grief, even by Xiu Xiu’s standards, has to be among their most breathtakingly bleak. Of the ten songs here, five are stories written directly from the lives of people close to the band. They include and I quote: ‘themes of prostitution, sex trafficking, murder, cults and substance abuse’. I guess it should be a bright point that Xiu Xiu’s friends could only produce enough material for five such songs. The other five here are of a piece, but cut from whole cloth, imagined in the style -so Stewart says- of the Teen Tragedy genre, popular back in the mid-Twentieth Century. Tear-jerking tales of doomed teens, set to bittersweet pop. Well the stories here might be something like that, but you be can sure there is nothing remotely as poppy as The Shangri Las doing Leader Of The Pack.
I have wondered whether it's even ethical to present such heartbreakingly awful tales, things that happened to people who you know, especially when each one is paired with another horror that’s wholly imaginary! Probably pretty silly on my part, I mean we’re hardly in Marilyn Manson territory here: a man who writes like the predator he allegedly is. Xiu Xiu’s emotional stance, by contrast, is one of genuine horror; like, how could this have happened? How could we have let this happen? Stewart has spoken of his own motivation, as one, not even of catharsis, but as an attempt to just organise these events in his mind. In conversation with Ryan Akler-Bishop of OurCulture he said: “I don’t deal with stress well… I’m fucking nuts, basically” and so Ignore Grief is some kind of extreme music-therapy.
Interestingly, Oh No, that album of duets, was Stewart, through music, saying thank you to a bunch of his friends and colleagues who got him through a particularly terrible period in his life. Ignore Grief could be its interleaving opposite: crying out to his friends in the worst pain of their lives. I’ve often heard it said that music which sounds like how you’re feeling is some of the best therapy you can get, so I really hope that this record has gone some way towards that kind of healing.
Angela Seo sings five of the songs on Ignore Grief, the most she’s ever contributed to a Xiu Xiu album, vocally. She hates singing, apparently, but is trying to push herself into a zone of discomfort; very Xiu Xiu. Actually she and Stewart sound remarkably similar: probably a product of living and working together for a very long time. In their whispery, gasping, anguished or monotone strains you can sometimes catch the words. I find fragments or even whole stanzas comprehensible, like this one from Parhump: “Reacting to the slightest bit of kindness as though a drug / The rain tambourined off a thousand empty liquor bottles in the courtyard / When your sons grow up to never place flowers there / You did this to yourself is all they will choose to remember.” Whole songs tend to fade out of focus however, charged with indecipherable symbolism and allegory. I suppose you could phrase that like a metaphor too: like catching a news report about a murder or rape and being left wondering about the details, the sad story of the victim, the motivation of the perpetrator, stuff that will never be filled in. The lyrics are all written up on the internet if you’d like to try and decipher them. It’s a goddamn hellscape, I certainly felt ghoulish going there.
For all the horror, if industrial music -with neo-classical tinges- is your jam, this is a good record. As I said, there are uncertainties left at the end of Ignore Grief and, really, that’s probably for the better; y'know: don’t stare too long into the abyss because the abyss stares back. However much of your calm you let it consume and however long you choose to let it do so I can say again, you will never be left in any doubt, this is a Xiu Xiu record.
- Chris Cobcroft.