Reality: An uncomfortable enjoyment

Xiu Xiu’s new album might hurt your ears and heal your head

Keri Carlson

In every way, Jamie Stewart’s music is unsettling.

Xiu Xiu – Stewart’s project with help from a cast of musicians – explores a world where characters live in extremely desperate situations. And Xiu Xiu’s music takes on this desperation by creating songs either quiet and fragile or frantic and abrasive.

Stewart’s voice ranges from meek – the kid who hangs his head in the corner of a party wishing to become invisible – to an angry sports fan yelling at the ref.

The music on Xiu Xiu’s fourth album follows the same pattern, which makes “La Foret” a difficult listen. Stewart starts with a shaky voice and a barely strummed guitar. In order to hear the song, you have to turn up the volume and wait for the outside world to come to a hush.

The next song though, has screeching synths and computer buzzes. The contrast between these two songs is so great that the second song could blow speakers or your eardrums. This pattern of quiet to loud continues throughout the album. The listener can never really relax.

But that’s the point.

As Stewart sings on the track “Ale”: “Shut up shut up, I want to hear that pin pricking / Shut up shut up, I want to hear that nail scrape,” Xiu Xiu welcomes the unpleasant sounds. They are just as much a part of life as the pleasant ones.

But then comes the question: Why listen to Xiu Xiu if the music is not pleasurable? If it only pierces your ears and makes you think of war and suicide, why?

Well, the answer is comparable to why someone would watch a documentary exposing slave labor conditions in developing countries. Sometimes culture, the culture that overwhelmingly surrounds us on billboards, radio, TV, etc., is too far removed from reality. It begins to seem like a farce.

On the song “Bog People,” Stewart sings a list of things that “will always be,” including “a jar of ash,” “an unfit mind,” “a headless neck” and “happiness.” Because these things are simply a given, Stewart concludes, “Why ask?” It’s a bleak postmodern outlook on the world. Things aren’t worth questioning because they will always be there, unchangeable.

“La Foret” is not an easy album. But in a way, the unpredictability of Xiu Xiu becomes predictable. After a while your ears adjust to the album’s ups and downs – as though in order to listen to “La Foret,” you just need to get your sea legs.