Friday, March 15, 2019

album review: 'girl with basket of fruit' by xiu xiu

Well, it's about time I finally got to this. And here's where we also need some backstory - at the start of February on Twitter I participated in a writing exercise called, appropriately, Music Writing Exercise, or #MWE. And for me it was a cute little side project for me to knock out some quips surrounding back catalogs I was covering alongside my regular reviews, and I figured that given that Xiu Xiu had been one of the most glaring holes in my musical knowledge, I'd listen to their entire discography for #MWE and so I could review their newest, critically divisive project. And...

Well, it's complicated - but also not nearly as much as I was expecting, because Xiu Xiu has put out a lot of wiry, abrasive provocation for its time. Now there are some absolutely great albums and you can definitely hear their influence across plenty of experimental acts, especially the ones with more of a focus on queer sexuality and especially Perfume Genius, but in hearing the discography as a whole it's easy to get burned out on shock tactics, or notice when the group isn't playing to their strengths. For one, I've always been convinced that they've had a knack for striking pop melodies and high concept ideas that rarely get the credit or analysis they deserve - mostly because it's way easier to focus on the profanity and explicit content and sheer noise - but at the same time there are stretches in that discography that seem to be coasting on airs, especially when they bring in a delicacy that feels undercomposed, and that's not counting when the great ideas don't quite stick the landing. And while singer-songwriter Jamie Stewart is a potent mastermind behind the project, if you have a keen ear you can very much tell how and where his sound is inspired and shaped, which can put a damper both on the provocation and the "unique, boundary-pushing experimentation", and that's not getting to the points where Xiu Xiu recycles old material and ideas a little too readily. But still, they ditched John Congleton's production this time around and with the subject matter surrounding female martyrdom... well, why not dive headfirst into some transgressive art, so what did we get from Girl With Basket Of Fruit?

Well, we sure as hell got something, and from me you're not getting a typical review, that's for damn sure. Once again we're getting a 'difficult' album from Xiu Xiu - if you were expecting hooks or stable tunes or anything more than a purely textural experience, you're going to be disappointed, and I say 'textural' because even before you dig up any interviews, it becomes clear Xiu Xiu is actively trying to resist straightforward analysis with Girl With Basket Of Fruit. It's a project so thoroughly consumed by its own nihilism that it's hard to avoid the possibility that Jaime Stewart is mercilessly trolling, spewing flamboyant poetry and daring the audience to find meaning where there isn't any... but that's not quite it, rather that if there is meaning or a place where the emotive resonance truly cuts him deep, he couldn't possibly comment, which can give the impression of an overloaded string of inside jokes and grotesque imagery, held together with the most tenuous flashes of context - which is what most have suggested, but I'd argue there's even more going on here. And I just wish I liked it more, because I'm not remotely convinced that it's all that good, especially if you're not mesmerized by what's on display.

So let's start with setting the context with two broader statements that Stewart provided: first, that there was a 'feral draw' towards the 'intersection of aesthetic culture/art and "underground" spirituality', or to translate this, the sort of vaguely articulated, "baser" traditions outside of "Western values" and their emotive expression and amplification through art and culture inspired by it. In other words, he's cherry-picking what to mainstream sensibilities defies the most reason or good taste and filtering it through Xiu Xiu's distinctive emotive spectrum, which leads to the second statement: a belief that we as a species are fucked because we're destroying the planet and through his emotional filter, what would comprise our grave marker - what has humanity truly delivered. Again, this is a project consumed by nihilistic depression - and let's be honest, that's an undercurrent that's run through a lot of Xiu Xiu's material and should be unsurprising for a frontman who cites Morrissey as his favourite artist - and when you couple it with material that's more amorphous texture than structured songs, this album is more about capturing a fractured emotion than making a point. Hell, its resistance of analysis could well be making a point on its own.

But that's not saying there aren't elements that can't be observed. For one, it's very telling that for as graphic as the first song can be - animals in assholes and painful masturbation into mush that splits the difference between the wrenching and completely childish, which prompts a scream to nobody to stop laughing - it's still set up as something of a joke, mostly through direct references on the second song 'It Comes Out as a Joke'. A sick joke for sure, and one that hits a skewed, uncomfortable balance between empathetic and voyeuristic, but if your punchline is drenched in nihilism with the subtext of 'nothing matters, we're all dead anyway', it kind of kills the stakes and weakens the emotional investment. Which, okay, there's always been some element of listening to Jamie Stewart jerk off on every Xiu Xiu album, but I mentioned voyeurism before and there's something discomforitng about how this project seems to revel in this territory. Going into the opening title track, Stewart has described the central metaphor as an inversion of a Caravaggio painting and how the martyr is portrayed in art through flipping the gender from male to female, from beatific exaltation of men to a fetishistic focus on torture of women. And he's not wrong about this either, there's a reason why rape-revenge stories and movies have a market, men are exalted for their suffering but with women the focus is solely on said suffering; hell, this is one reason why I was so goddamn annoyed with Darren Aronofsky's mother! a few years back. But Stewart seems to conveniently ignore how that has been a significant factor to give his own provocative subject matter weight and shock value, and when he tries to sidestep things by saying it's wrung from gallows humour, it's very telling how he's not really at the gallows. Go to 'Amargi ve Moo', a song reportedly inspired by a friend dying of cancer, and the unknown question of what comes next, but then Stewart interrupts the track to go 'bibibibibibib' at everyone... which is exactly something you can do when you feel the stakes don't impact you in the same way. Skip ahead to 'Mary Turner Mary Turner', the story of the real life lynching and mutilation of a pregnant black woman and her unborn child, and while you can tell Stewart has visceral rage directed at the poisoned system that allowed the south to get away with this, was this his story to tell? Was the camera of his words best suited to linger on every gory detail amidst the context of apocalyptic, feral nihilism? And once that question snaps into view, the other voyeuristic moments raise more questions: the implied rape and pitiful stammering denials on 'Ice Cream Truck', the suicidal murk of 'Scisssssssors' amidst a cloud of old blues - framing of which I'd definitely question - and then 'Pumpkin Attack On Mommy And Daddy', which questions in humanity's naturally animalistic state whether it was really a good idea to gain sentience and realize the atrocities we've committed. 

But let's circle back to the first two statements: the artistic amplification of humanity's basest impulses, and an overwhelming cushion of nihilistic detachment, amidst a lot of horrifying stories - but nearly all of them at the expense of someone else in the text. Oh, Jamie Stewart is selling them as hard as he can as if they have visceral, personal meaning, but that nihilism allows a manufactured distance, a diminishment of the stakes for him that allows it to spray it on screen, regardless of any question of responsibility in its telling. And here's the thing: he even acknowledges this, first being the earthy, quasi-Pagan abstract love song 'The Wrong Thing' - reportedly inspired by a lot of bondage imagery because this is Jamie Stewart and of course it is - and then finally with the closing song 'Normal Love', where at the basest of levels he doesn't need to feel pride or respect... he just wants to feel something, to quote him directly, 'Just let me pretend / I have something to lose'. Self-aware and poignant, perhaps... but it only reinforces the navel-gazing of this project, that for as much as he's showcasing horrible things to show humanity's hidden truth, the emotional arc and attempt at resonance is focused on his story. And there's a sick sense of irony that for as much as he wants to make a statement about how these systems brutalize others, he ignores how much his art appropriates the struggle on the same principles, and retreats to the cheap defense of abstract nihilism to deflect and excuse it. And yet I'm not surprised he wound up here - this is exactly the sort of project that gets made when you're sucked your own personal vices and drama dry, especially when so much of Xiu Xiu's career has relied upon finding ways to shock the audience, and this will get there, although perhaps for the wrong reasons.

But let's ask what might be the more important question: who cares? Because you can definitely make the argument that most people will not be delving as deeply into the thematic contradictions and iconography of Xiu Xiu in comparison with just marveling in stunned horror at the vistas on display, so shouldn't we just highlight that? Well, that's one reason why I brought up the weakened stakes, but in all due honesty just the language choices that Stewart uses can be just as compromising - I get the dramatic juxtaposition between high poetry and more visceral, guttural language, but it starts to wear thin when he's talking about pee-pees and banaynays! Again, it fractures the atmosphere Xiu Xiu is trying to create in a way that would seem memetic if Stewart hasn't made clear in interviews he's generally bored by the internet, but it's another example of an element that diminishes tension. Which is kind of a shame because when you start considering the actual sound and pieces we get here, Xiu Xiu is still a potent act, featuring Stewart's contorted vocals against some of their most cavernous and alien instrumentation to date. Well, I say that with the acknowledgement, again, that we're not dealing with much in terms of hooks or song structure or even coherent melody most of the time, and that the more abrasive elements do have parallels to material Xiu Xiu has pursued before... including stuff I've liked, for the record. And I'll say that there are some sonic ideas I do like here - I appreciate that Stewart pushes his delivery with this much rawness, I dig the coursing, fragmented tension off the hammering percussion supplemented by the spongy, cavernous mix and alien shrieks, and most of all I do like that sense of fractured beauty that come with the organic strings quaking between the margins - moments of real beauty amidst the carnage. And again, I'll absolutely acknowledge that 'Normal Love' is a striking closer - muted pianos, great subtle acoustic touches, it has the feel of the best of Xiu Xiu's ballads... but it also has a tune, which is something the majority of this project doesn't care to have. I'd argue more of this project takes influence from no wave and industrial music, but in the latter case you'd at least hope for a groove or solid climax, and while we might get the former in all of their quaking, howling noise, the latter rarely arrives, more reliant on blowing out the percussion and vocals for broad, unstable shock rather than any sort of pacing. And again, there are moments that work: the agonized industrial touches of the title track, the rusted-out elegance of 'The Wrong Thing', the oily bells and shuddering bass beats of 'Mary Turner Mary Turner', and the fragmented techno rattle of 'Pumpkin Attack On Mommy And Daddy' almost could remind me of Death Grips. But between the gratuitous pitch-shifting, the points where any hope of melody descends into babble, and the near continuous lack of pay-off, many of the pieces start with potential but wind up as feeling less than the sum of their parts.

And look, I already know what some of you are saying: you clearly aren't appreciative of the monstrous beauty on display and you've gone on record as not being a fan of nihilistic art, of course this wasn't about to work for you. And the latter statement is true... until you compare this to what Daughters delivered with You Won't Get What You Want which takes similar iconography and tones along with some deeply nihilistic themes, and then realized through accessibility and structure they could terrify so many more instead of indulging in self-serving deflection and recycling, lessons that both Swans and Nick Cave learned and realized in different ways. Hell, you'd think Xiu Xiu would have learned this themselves given how their tuneful accessibility has often been their greatest strength, but for an album that seems to want to hold a mirror to the world's decay and rot, they grew more interested in their own reflection. A shame the insight mined from that feels more sparse than ever, which means I'm giving this a strong 6/10 and a recommendation if you're a Xiu Xiu fan or just looking for a challenging listen... but the group has done better, and in the face of this reflection, I'm not mesmerized.

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