An album that your left ear will enjoy more than your right.
When musicians, namely mainstream artists, attempt to make political statements, they often come across as buffoonish. Think back to W.’s presidency and the countless songs with the same message, The president’s bad, man, that were written by such high profile acts as Green Day, Foo Fighters, Nine Inch Nails, the Dixie Chicks, etc. Then if they weren’t singing about their political views, they were making them known during live broadcasts. Anyone remember the absurd MTV VMAs broadcast hosted by P. Diddy that was turned into an infomercial for his ‘Vote or Die’ campaign? It didn’t exactly lead to an improvement in voting among young people. Ask any of the musicians to explain their political reasoning, and you might get some vague answers regarding disapproval of the war, Hurricane Katrina, or just anti-establishment ho-hum. Political songwriting hasn’t gone away, even with a Democrat President, but it’s gotten smarter as evident in the new Xiu Xiu album, Always.
While one may argue that mainstream artists dumb down their political messages to reach a broader (less intelligent) audience, I’m going to go out on a limb (not really) and say they’re not the brightest intellects either. Xiu Xiu’s front-man Jamie Stewart seems the opposite based on his songwriting alone. The guy doesn’t shy away from brutal honesty, and he attacks ideas with a brash frankness that may even offend the most left-minded listeners. Drawing from personal experiences, stories from friends, and current events, Stewart delivers an album that is both thought provoking and off-putting.
Always matches its harsh content with an equally fitting musical demeanor. Going tit-for-tat with Conservative anti-abortion beliefs, the industrial-centric “I Luv Abortion” sounds like it’s channeling Nine Inch Nails’ The Downward Spiral. The guitar-playing on “Factory Girls” comes across as weak and tortured among the various electro-effects. The poppiest song comes courtesy of “Honeysuckle” which was written by Angela Seo. Its friendly keyboard arrangement feels like a safe moment to take a breath, but the song examines suicide as a viable option. Piling on the dread is Jamie Stewart’s often quivered vocals, sounding so emotionally heavy that they almost choke in his throat.
As I stated earlier, Always‘ songs cover a wide berth of political and sociological subjects. The aforementioned “I Luv Abortion” supports the woman’s right to choose, but it’s lyrics, “When i look at my thighs, I see death / It is great/rad / I love abortion”, don’t seem like the best way of differentiating from the ‘abortion is murder’ argument. However, it depends on how you view the song. Stewart could be using it as a sarcastic response to the outrage vented by conservative idealists. “Gul Mudin” deals with the Afghanistan teenager who was brutally murdered by US soldiers for sport. Stewart goes as far as mentioning the US soldiers by name as he details the atrocities of their actions. It’s a story that most musicians wouldn’t dare touching, and Stewart’s choice of bringing it to light is somewhat questionable. Is he merely finding a way to draw negative criticism to the US Army and troops stationed in Afghanistan? Who knows, but it’s a horrible blemish against our country, and Stewart is courageous for tackling it.
“Factory Girls” is another song that could raise eyebrows unintentionally against Stewart. Stewart criticizes consumerism through the treatment of Chinese women being forced from their rural homes into factories. Stewart ends the song with the line, “Thank you for making this purse”, highlighting what a tragic life these women are subjected to. However, anyone that makes this type of criticism runs the risk of being called a hypocrite just because we all have computers, cell phones, clothing, etc. that was manufactured under these conditions, and none of us can seem to do without them. Stewart recorded much of this album on his computer. It’s an easy stance to take but a hard one to commit to.
Always is content heavy and ripe for discussion, and I’ve lightly touched on its subject matter. Any album that stirs profound thinking among its listeners is an album worth your time, even when as emotionally challenging as this one. I’m not saying it’s for everyone. Those easily offended by Stewart’s hard left leanings will no doubt hate this album. I also would not recommend this as a starting point for listeners without prior exposure to Xiu Xiu either. Stewart’s voice, though effective, can be distracting — it’s easy to be reminded of Jason Segall’s character in Forgetting Sarah Marshall when he’s voicing his Dracula puppet — and when combined with the stark material, it’s a lot to digest. However, those that do listen to Always will find a lot to talk about.
Purchase: Xiu Xiu – Always