Jamie Stewart, the singer/songwriter of the experimental duo Xiu Xiu, doesn’t hide his misanthropic feelings. He even wears them proudly on his sleeve—or, rather, on his guitar strap in the form of an “I HATE PEOPLE” pin. When Stewart began writing their 12th album OH NO, some of his friendships and working relationships ended due to what the album bio describes as “surprising acts of betrayal and disrespect,” leading to mental health struggles and canceled tours. While this explanation of what happened feels like the PR version of vaguebooking, we are left in no question about how Stewart feels over the course of their latest record. With the production prowess of Angela Seo (the other half of Xiu Xiu), Stewart uses OH NO to sort through his emotional pain, and eventually comes out on the other side bruised but not broken, thanks to the support of old friends and fans.
The pair execute this concept skillfully, if heavy-handedly. Every song is a duet, emphasizing how connection with others brought Stewart back from the brink. “The guest stars of OH NO reflect the types of people, and many of the very same, who helped remind me that the ratio of beautiful humans to shitty humans is more like 60/40 rather than what I have always assumed was 1/99,” he explains.
Melancholy, doom and anger weave the first 11 songs together, solidified by Seo’s expert production alongside Greg Saunier of Deerhoof fame and Lawrence English. On “A Classic Screw” (featuring Italian musician Fabrizio Modonese Palumbo), Stewart seeks vengeance by invoking the mythical Irish figure of the Morrígan (who helps warriors vanquish their enemies), singing, “Send back the wrong heaped over me / To him.” Despite this attempt at retributive justice, Stewart is still seething with bitterness on the next track “It Bothers Me All the Time” (featuring. Shearwater’s Jonathan Meiburg). “Rats are loyal to the Earth / Dung beetles are loyal to the Earth / You are less than the rat,” he dramatically intones.
The key word there is “dramatically.” Every single song on this album makes up a piece of a mini opera, a melodrama playing out through Stewart’s histrionic vocals and Seo’s overwhelming, occasionally jarring production. The heightened nature of their sound makes sense, considering the emotional weight of the subject matter. However, being continually beaten over the head with Stewart’s haunted whispers or tortured cries lessens their effect. You become bored with them, like with four-letter words in Safdie brothers films.
That’s not to say there aren’t moments of sonic brilliance on OH NO. You can easily imagine the industrial “Rumpus Room,” featuring Angus Andrew of Liars, blaring out of speakers in a scuzzy Berlin basement, sweat dripping down the walls. Stewart takes a rare moment to set his self-seriousness to the side on “Rumpus Room” and have some fun—dark, moody fun, but fun all the same. Xiu Xiu’s reimagining of The Cure’s “One Hundred Years” (featuring Chelsea Wolfe) is another standout, again using industrial sounds to bring a new, dystopian edge to the track. The production renders an already gloomy song even bleaker, as clanging synth and distortion barrage your eardrums.
When the Mazzy Star-esque “Saint Dymphna” (featuring George Lewis Jr., aka Twin Shadow) rolls around, we finally see Stewart start to heal. The track takes inspiration from the titular saint’s life; she fled her homeland when her father decided to marry her, but was eventually found out and murdered by him. Stewart updates her story for modern day—“Black pharmacy hair, no safe place to stay”—and finds some emotional common ground between the two of them: “Getting used to battery / Getting used to getting through it.” He may not be completely out of the woods, but he’s on his way, and the luminous dream pop of “Saint Dymphna” makes for a gorgeous soundtrack to his recovery. The penultimate song “A Bottle of Rum” (featuring Liz Harris of Grouper) brings us home with guitar-led warmth. Harris’ summery voice provides a much-needed juxtaposition to Stewart’s severity.
Xiu Xiu’s esoteric lyrics and challenging, textured sounds are part of what make them so singular as a group, but can also be overdone. OH NO’s moving moments of catharsis and uplifting hope are muted by how exhaustingly over-the-top the rest of the album feels.
Clare Martin is a cemetery enthusiast, hibernophile and contributing writer for Paste’s music and comedy sections. She also exercises her love for reality TV at HelloGiggles every now and then. Go harass her on Twitter @theclaremartin.