f the term emo is such a stigma, then why is Xiu Xiu largely exempt from derision in indie-circles? I mean, arguably—with soft/loud melody/noise dynamics, irrepressible bursts of emotional energy, a focus on broken relationships, and songs that begin with “It feels retarded…I want you to like me”—Xiu Xiu is the most emo band in the world. And yet, critics and hipsters hesitate to dismiss the San Jose-based band the way they would, for example…Dashboard Confessional.
Granted, Xiu Xiu is a provocative, so-much-more-emo-than-normal-emo-that-the-term-emo-no-longer-applies collective based around singer/songwriter Jamie Stewart (indie rock’s reigning male drama queen), and its music is often as challenging as Dashboard Confessional’s is vapid. My problem with Stewart, his band, and the new Fabulous Muscles is that all too often his desire to provoke seems like an affectation. Does he really have to continuously stretch his unforgettably limited voice past its natural boundary? Does he absolutely need to pepper his already uncomfortably personal, polysexual prose with references to “the now-familiar flesh of your deformed penis?” Does his knack for gorgeous melody, which sprouts to its fullest fruition on this new album, have to be tempered by jarring, often-painful eruptions of screeching, synthesized cacophony?
Thus, while Fabulous Muscles is Xiu Xiu’s most fully realized album to date, with introspection teetering on the brink of collapse, its also frustrating in its lack of, well, emotional maturity. Obviously, Stewart has a penchant for self-examination—some of it brilliant and incisive—but his work is also obnoxiously self-indulgent.
Take “Support Our Troops” for example, which begins with the following spoken-word imagery, delivered in Stewart’s monotone:
“Did you know that you were going to shoot off the top of a four-year-old girl’s head and look across her car seat down into her skull and see into her throat? And did you know that her dad would say to you ‘Please, Sir, can I take her body home?’ Oh, wait, you totally did know that that would happen, because you’re a jock who’s too stupid and too greedy and too unmotivated to do anything else but still be the biggest…”
Criticism of war policy is fine, but the imagery—as graphic/brutal/disturbing as it is—seems childish, unconvincing and only vaguely sincere, like scribblings in a ninth-grader’s journal. It doesn’t help that the musical backing is a five-minute drone of grating computerized noise.
However, lest I forget that Fabulous Muscles is still an admirable release, let me point out some of the album’s emotional peaks. Opener “Crank Heart” sets the bar high; possibly the most energetic song Xiu Xiu has recorded, the track employs frenetic drum-machines, a pounding heartbeat and a twisted funhouse of synths that recall the gloom and doom of Joy Division (“AAARGH!!! IAN CURTIS!!! ICANTBELIEVEISAIDIT!!!”) or early Cure. “I Luv The Valley OH” scales similar emotional territory, with Stewart’s wail on full display: ”Je t’aime the valley, OHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!” But “Clowne Towne” is the album’s true highlight, and will be remembered as one of 2004‘s most beautiful and—dare I say—important musical moments. Over a strummed acoustic guitar, Stewart emotes passionately about “a big dumb kid,” a character that can easily be seen as Stewart himself. He continues to berate his protagonist: “Your true self has become weak and alone and annoying, a true ridiculous dumb ass.”
I wish the creation of Fabulous Muscles had started with the writing of “Clowne Towne”, a song about Jamie Stewart’s bitter but illuminating self-realization. This is the end of introspection; Jamie is ready to embrace his audience. However, in its placement at the end of the album, the song seems like more of an afterthought; it could be Stewart’s re-evaluation of his entire oeuvre.
Jamie Stewart, you are going to be an excellent songwriter once you drop your bad habits. Repeat after me: Growth, Maturity, Clarity. Idiosyncrasies can be endearing, but self-indulgence is absolutely emo. “Do you love me—Jamie Stewart?” you asked in the certifiably insane fan-letter “Ian Curtis Wishlist” (from last year’s A Promise). No, Jamie, I don’t love you, but I would if you’d just let me.
Reviewed by: Akiva Gottlieb
Reviewed on: 2004-02-25