Fifteen years into the project’s existence, a new Xiu Xiu record comes with certain expectations. Tinny synths and drum machines will grow from sparse arrangements, reverb-drenched orchestral elements will weave into a tight-knit tension, and the composite product will erupt into a noise-drenched frenzy before retreating back into a breathy, close-mic’d quiver. Records like 2003’s Fag Patrol and 2004’s Fabulous Muscles helped crystalize the formula, matching Jamie Stewart’s indelible vocal gymnastics with a blend of hi- and lo-fi sounds as integral to the Xiu Xiu “sound” as they are rich with their own imagistic associations. From the gentle drip of downtuned guitars on “I Luv the Valley OH!” to their Suicide-esque use of the Roland CR-78 rhythm machine on the recent “Get Up,” Xiu Xiu have long pulled glimpses of stray aesthetics into an evocative assemblage of human fragility.
On FORGET, their latest, Stewart teams up with guitarist Kristof Hahn of Swans, as well as To Be Kind producer John Congleton and Greg Saunier of Deerhoof. Against the brooding drums of “The Queen of the Losers” and high-volume punch of “Hay Choco Bananas,” it isn’t hard to pick out the Swans influence; for two bands with a considerable overlap in sound, the touch of Swan’s no-wave nihilism feels like a natural next-step in Xiu Xiu chronology. The album also features an extended spoken-word piece performed by renowned drag artist Vaginal Davis, which offers a glimmer of something outside the standard Xiu Xiu template. The poem, which grew out of Stewart’s attempts to report sex trafficking sites, attributes a line to each image that he came across online, pulling narrative from the illusion of agency present in these photos, and the dark subtext beneath their surface. “My finger is in my mouth, my hijab is polka dot,” Davis states. “My head is resting on my wrist, my gaze is never going to settle.”
Though no stranger to such controversy—2003’s A Promise came under fire for similar imagery and accompanying allegations of its exploit—Stewart’s writing here raises questions about the use of the other’s tragedy to intensify the album’s heavy impact. Placed alongside the personal triumphs of a track like “Get Up,” Stewart dons the imagery of a cause at the fringe of his own experience, crafting a harrowing, heartbreaking narrative that turns foreign feelings into streamlined heartbreak and an economically-packaged punch of pure emotion.
Elsewhere on the album, tracks like “Jenny GoGo” and “Petite” use Stewart’s voice directly for a shot at the same grief-stricken effect. Surging from a tortured whisper to an explosive, high-volume vulnerability, his singing gives a certain gravity to the project’s sound, lashing out with a trembling timbre and a Rolodex of first-thought-best-thought wordplay. “It was not my wish to be a slave,” he sings through an impenetrable blend of perspectives on “Petite.” “What God wants She does.” Like most Xiu Xiu lyrics, the line and greater track are designed for maximum impact, more steeped in piercing language than built for repeated listening. Still, singles like “Wondering” call to mind the poppier elements of the Xiu Xiu catalog, and others return to the same soundscapes of The Air Force or Women as Lovers with surprising resound.
FORGET sets out for new terrain with an expanded collection of collaborators, but isn’t far from what you’d expect from the project at this stage. Climbing to noisy limits then settling back into the same scattered routine, the album lays bare what’s made Xiu Xiu such a surviving force of emo experimentalism all along. But for an act this indebted to the unexpected, it takes a lot to shake up perception of a style so established and at this point, even collaborative reinvention is a tough space to occupy for too long.