Xiu Xiu’s latest offering is an incredible, other-worldly challenge, says Conrad Duncan
I’ve heard a few people talk about Forget like it’s Xiu Xiu’s version of a pop record but I’m not entirely sure where that interpretation came from. Maybe they were convinced by the shimmering euphoria on lead-single ‘Wondering’ or the relative accessibility compared to the avant-garde experiments on their recent cover albums. The cover album is normally a place of refuge for artists who have run out of original ideas, such as past-their-prime legends like Bob Dylan and Iggy Pop, or artists who never had them to begin with. Yet, on 2012’s Nina and last year’s Plays the Music of Twin Peaks, Xiu Xiu pulled off a rare feat by making cover albums that felt justified. The former teased out the depths of despair in Nina Simone’s music with arrangements that frequently drew from free jazz, while the latter turned the soundtrack of Twin Peaks into a nightmarish vision that David Lynch would be proud of. However, if those descriptions sound nothing like the sort of music you’d be interested in listening to, there may still be something for you on Forget. Make no mistake, these songs don’t sound like they were written with Little Mix or Justin Bieber in mind, nor are likely to trouble the charts in a million years, but these 10 songs arguably represent the most coherent and digestible version of the band’s sound yet.
Take ‘Wondering’ as a case in point. The lyrics remain wilfully obscure and Jamie Stewart’s vocals are still as operatic and filled with terror as before. However, the difference is that now they’re backed by synths and drum machines that clatter together with a blissful energy, cutting through the despair that often clouds Xiu Xiu’s music. It sounds monumental, like Depeche Mode taking on industrial rock, or conversely, Nine Inch Nails committing themselves completely to synth-pop. In those 4 minutes alone, Xiu Xiu manage to perfectly streamline their sound and while they don’t quite reach those heights again on Forget, the rest of the album lives up to the promise of its lead-single.
The closest they come to matching it is on the following track ‘Get Up’, where Stewart’s vocals become whisper-soft over an elegantly simple arrangement of guitars and synths that build to an unexpectedly beautiful climax. Elsewhere, ‘The Call’ demands the listener’s attention with what is likely to be 2017’s most jarring album opener before ‘Queen of the Losers’ dives headfirst into chaos with a crushing combination of pounding drums and abrasive electronic noise. In fact, the whole first half of the album is pretty much flawless. It’s no surprise then that the second half is the weaker of the two, although the title-track ranks among Xiu Xiu’s finest songs.
If all of this makes it sound like Forget is a demanding listen at times then you’re not wrong. It’s not an album that you can easily put on and forget about. Similarly, there’s also a punishing nature to it that’s unlikely to find favour with those who prefers their music to sound pleasant. But in an odd, masochistic way, I still think there is a lot of fun to be had with this album. The ease at which Xiu Xiu manage to swing so gracefully between contrasting emotions is often astonishing. For much of the album, they move between joy, sadness and terror so smoothly that they all seem to blend into one another. The way that Forget manages to exist so artfully in the spaces between pre-established binaries is ultimately its greatest pleasure.
These songs can sound at once joyous and tragic, accessible and avant-garde, beautiful and ugly. Throughout the album, it’s unclear what point of view Stewart is singing from as his lyrics refer to both masculine and feminine characters; the other voice that bookends the album with spoken sections is equally ambiguous. Very little is spelled out directly on Forget, yet its emotional cues are strikingly clear; there’s no sense that the tone of this album has been misjudged in any way. So when I say that Forget is a weird album, I don’t mean it in the usual sense that it sounds a bit odd. I mean it in the sense that it feels other-worldly, and in the sense that I would be shocked if I heard another record like it in 2017. I’ve already listened to Forget a lot of times over and much of it still baffles me in ways that I love. By the end of the year, I doubt I’ll understand it much more.