When the ebulliently abrasive Knife Play came out in 2002, few thought they would be looking at Jamie Stewart’s shattered worldview as a point of nostalgic comfort. No one believed that “A-I-D-S / H-I-V” would become lyrical touchstone, most thought that Xiu Xiu’s exploration of the deepest circles of emotional hell would be nothing more than a passing fad. But here were are, a decade past Xiu Xiu’s divisive and maximalist debut, comforted to know that Stewart’s well of despair has yet to reach rock bottom.
Always marks a decade of Xiu Xiu releases, and Stewart’s first full album since 2010’s Dear God, I Hate Myself. Just by looking at the song titles (“I Love Abortion”) anyone can see that Jamie Stewart’s uniquely sullen humor hasn’t lost a step. The album continues his exploration of electronic tones and the dancier side of sadness, juxtaposing dirty synth sounds and four to the floor beats with his trademark wavering tenor. Songs like “Born To Suffer” frenetically bounce along with New Order-esque catchiness, and would be ripe for summer mixtapes if not for, you know, the cataclysmically depressing subject matter. But fans of Xiu Xiu should already know that Stewart’s life is one big, beautiful drag.
Lyrically, Stewart muses about quintessential topics like God, ennui, sexual confusion, depression, stasis, bad poetry on the internet. But as time passes, the narrative Xiu Xiu has embraced has transformed from one of rage and confusion to pithy acceptance; where violent anger once was is now replaced by the noisy ghosts of exhaustion, surrender. “Honey Suckle” best exemplifies this frail acceptance of futility; Stewart’s voice is frail as ever, squeaking out lines like “I get up get up but the day is ruined again” and “You can run, but what’s the point” without a hint of irony. This is the tragically beautiful sound of a man growing older and finding no satisfying answers.
It goes without saying that Xiu Xiu is not for everyone, and Always is no exception. Jamie Stewart aims to put you in an uncomfortable position, and his techniques are no less successful than they were a decade ago. He is a master of his craft, able to twist even the poppiest melodies into soul-crushing elegies for the modern age. It’s amazing how lush Stewart’s compositions continue to be, even when he is exploring sonic territory that may not be comfortable for him. And no one in the music world examines the richness of despair like Stewart does, and it would be hard to imagine someone coming close. Let the id ride on.