Xiu Xiu – A Promise

Xiu Xiu
A Promise

Xiu Xiu don’t wear their emotions on their sleeve so much as nail them to your sleeve, raw and bleeding. A mass of contradictions, their music is not easy to dissect or analyze. On one level, they are made up of a few obvious influences – Einsturzende Neubauten, Echo and the Bunnymen, and Joy Division (who get namechecked here, and have been covered by them in the past). They are both maddeningly pretentious and refreshingly honest, abrasive and soothing, calm and violent, and always unrelentingly bleak.
The songs on A Promise are short stories about people in desperate situations, degraded, used, and with little to look forward to. Tracks like “Sad Pony Guerilla Girl” and “Walnut House” show a disturbing side of relationships, with the characters in the songs victims of circumstance, or abuse. None of this is particularly new for Xiu Xiu, who have been mining the depression vein since their debut, but here the song structures have become a little more traditional, easier to follow, and they therefore do a much better job of dragging you in. For example, “Sad Pony Guerilla Girl” has an almost delicate, folky beginning, and a sing-song ending. The vocals, while still the same warbling and wailing, have been reigned in a little, giving them more punch when the singer explodes in wounded rage, as he does on “Aptistat Commander.” The songwriting is much stronger as well, moving away from depression for depression’s sake and giving motivation and background to the characters who populate Xiu Xiu’s world.
More conventional song structures do not mean that Xiu Xiu have changed their sonic approach. Kitchen sink percussion, overdriven and compressed keyboards, and odd production effects are still the rule here, though little acoustic touches provide some welcome contrast. Overall, the sound is much richer than on previous efforts, the production more crisp, with the separation between the instruments more distinct. The approach serves the band well, providing better contrasts and a wider emotional range.
The downside? It’s fairly inevitable that a band that crawls so far out on the ice will fall through occasionally. The cover of Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car,” is just not that great. It’s inclusion makes sense, given the album’s themes and stories, but it’s a wasted opportunity. Played on what sounds like a ukulele or toy guitar, with an occasional cello, the singer opts for a constant, paper-thin vocal and makes a couple of changes to the lyrics that just sound forced and awkward. It’s possible that this was intended, but it doesn’t work. “Walnut House” is a bit of a clunker as well; it’s seriousness crosses the line between pretentiousness and ridiculousness that Xiu Xiu skate. And when the singer intones the line “hurting my butthole,” well, the whole thing falls apart. However, the album taken as a whole succeeds.
When I wrote the review for Xiu Xiu’s last release, I mentioned that it was likely to polarize listeners, both sonically and lyrically. This is still the case, but the introduction of a few more conventional structures has, surprisingly, opened their sound up a bit, and the production has made the songs more accessible. But don’t fear: Xiu Xiu are still a mass of contradictions, still incredibly morose, and are still original. Here, they just become a little bit more amazing. Pick this one up, kids. I can’t guarantee a good time, but I do guarantee some good music.