Xiu Xiu are experimental in every sense of the word. Not solely because their music has seen such an obscure meeting of a myriad of different genres in various formats, but the band, masterminded by their only constant member, Jamie Stewart, has taken new risks with every album. Case in point, the group’s previous project, Plays the Music of Twin Peaks, was a covers album of, as the name might suggest, the soundtrack to the American 90s serial drama, Twin Peaks, and the end product was a dark and beautiful sonic experience that proved to be one of my favourite albums of last year. Whilst this was undeniably an ambitious feat, the idiosyncratic themes of the TV show that often related to surrealism and a sort of dark comedy fit in perfectly with Xiu Xiu’s aesthetic, and the band’s latest album, FORGET, displays some of these sombre concepts more starkly than ever. Oddly enough, despite the themes pertaining to death and the afterlife, conveyed with somewhat of a surrealist sensibility, this new record from the group is also amongst their most accessible, with a touch of pop appeal being far more apparent on FORGET than much of the band’s recent material. As one would expect from Xiu Xiu, there is, of course, an experimental edge to everything they are doing on their latest studio effort, but the way in which their avant-garde tendencies are conveyed makes for an album that feels like a synthpop project. The poppy vibe on FORGET almost comes across as intentional irony, given the grim subject matters, and the end product comes together as another beautifully dark record for the group that may go down as one of the most comprehensive exhibitions of Xiu Xiu’s modus operandi to date.
The more accessible approach that FORGET takes was evident from the release of the lead single from the album, Wondering. Although this track is certainly the most poppy and upbeat on the record, it displays many of the musical themes that recur across the tracklisting, such as the heightened focus on the place of melody in these pieces, as well as the vibrant electro-pop air that many of these songs convey. Wondering boasts one of Xiu Xiu’s most danceable beats to feature on a track of theirs in a long time, and the wonderfully bright synths bear a glamorous texture that demonstrates the pop appeal of this song. In fact, glamorous is certainly an apt word, as this track is reminiscent of some glam rock acts, especially as a result of Stewart’s usual warbling vocal delivery. Indeed, whilst the frontman’s style of singing typically comes across as very fragile and cold, here it evokes the extravagant persona of a pop icon, proving to be highly felicitous to the general mood of Wondering. At Last, At Last carries many of the same musical stylings as Wondering, but worked into a much darker and more intimate setting. Stewart’s vocals are back to sounding painfully delicate atop the sparse instrumentation during the introduction, but are nevertheless slightly more accessible than usual, eliciting a similar sense of frailty that could be found in David Bowie’s vocal delivery on his final album, Blackstar. During the chorus on At Last, At Last, the melodious synthesizers are dynamic and dazzling, whilst the whirling of electronic embellishments edge the song slightly closer to the more challenging side of Xiu Xiu’s music. Ultimately, this is wherein the great successes of this record often reside; in the band’s ability to forge ravishing soundscapes of a synthpop hue that are met with flourishes of experimental electronics, which sees two opposing musical worlds collide in the midst of sparkling colours.
Whilst FORGET most definitely displays some of Xiu Xiu’s most colourful music to date, there are a handful of tracks on here whose music is as chilling as the deathly subject matter that courses through the album’s cold veins. The second single released leading up to the record, Jenny GoGo, features an eerily desolate instrumental of droning hums and pulsating synths that could certainly be worked into a more conventional synthpop tune, but Stewart’s decrepit vocals and the bursts of electronic clangour set the mood of the piece as cold and haunting. Get Up is equally chilling, despite the song exhibiting an appealing post-punk vibe. Its simple guitar riff could be used in all manner of musical contexts, but here it is used as part of the barren instrumentation that accompanies Stewart’s fractured singing, which sounds like it’s being whispered to the listener from down a telephone line. This is even more eerie given the lyrical depictions of Stewart’s death, as the singer begs the addressee to stay with him, pleading, “If you leave / No one will find my corpse”. The succeeding track, Hay Choco Bananas, shifts the mood from haunting to menacing, with the grumbling synth melodies being scarily foreboding. The organ-like synth lines over the refrain seem to carry funereal connotations, as Stewart proclaims to the recipient of the lyrics that, should they leave, his life would end. Indeed, whilst FORGET is one of Xiu Xiu’s most accessible albums, it is also arguably amongst their darkest and most depressing thematically. The result is a record that seemingly seeks to be sympathetic in its bereavement, with many listeners likely being able to relate to the pain evident in these songs’ subject matter and their fragile delivery.
Much of Xiu Xiu’s work can be described as beautifully dark, but this is perhaps most applicable to FORGET, with this album’s colourful, pop foundation being built on with surrealist depictions of loss, pain, lamentation and death, making for an experience that can be both distressing and enjoyable. The focus with which the band approaches the assembly of these compositions is incredibly impressive, with these songs coming together as vibrant exhibitions of both melody and dissonance, order and chaos. What’s equally impressive is the way in which Xiu Xiu’s music continues to come across as intelligent and cultivated whilst still displaying a broad sense of pop appeal. FORGET is certainly an intense and challenging listen at times, in the usual Xiu Xiu manner, in spite of its memorable melodies and steady grooves, but this is perhaps merely an indication of the myriad ways in which this album can be appreciated. The listener could choose to focus on the record’s glistening soundscapes, its deathly themes or its impassioned performances and, chances are, they will be equally thrilled by all of these parts that comprise a beautifully dark whole.
The Vinyl Verdict: 8.5/10