Dour experimentation and extraordinary boldness
Jamie Stewart has been pushing himself musically for what feels like an eternity. It started it the early 2000s, but his appetite for extreme experimentation hasn’t subsided in the slightest since then. These adventurous proclivities have led him to the newest Xiu Xiu project, OH NO, a duet album with the likes of Deb Demure, Susanne Sachse, Chelsea Wolfe and many more. Much of these collaborations are wildly successful, often breaking new ground for both Stewart and the collaborators.
“Sad Mezcalita,” a collaboration with prolific indie singer-songwriter Sharon Van Etten, kicks off the project. It offers a glimpse of what’s to come—the track begins in a very sparing instrumental space before transitioning into a montage of eerie, whispered confessions from both Van Etten and Stewart after a growling musical explosion. These sorts of bold and experimental structures exist over the album.
“I Cannot Resist” sees Stewart experiencing a romantic implosion, his voice trembling throughout the track. The cinematic base and more experimental elements that enter late in the song recall one’s deepest struggle with faith and failing to live up to expectations.
“The Grifters” also feels like a bit of a tome. Haley Fohr’s cavernous vocals echo throughout the track, with hurried drums and other disembodied voices layering these few minutes with foreboding dread. “Goodbye For Good,” a collaboration with Deerhoof drummer Greg Saunier, is another intensely cinematic and, at times, apocalyptic track—Neil Blomkamp might want to keep it in mind for his District 9 sequel.
It’s at this point in the album (“OH NO,” precisely) where things start to go off the rail… in a good way. Stewart starts to tap in to the most experimental and bizarre corners of his truly individual musical identity. Gone are the musical elements that appear to at least resemble what exists elsewhere. Now, all that exists are the terrified shrieks and esoteric images like “A punishment bottle of hot sauce” that inhabit tracks like “Rumpus Room,” a duet with Liars frontman Angus Andrew, and “I Dream of Someone Else Entirely,” a collaboration with Owen Pallett of Arcade Fire fame.
Other great tracks on the back half of the project include “A Classic Screw,” the Fabrizio Modenese Palumbo-assisted musical equivalent of a crumbling haunting house (with a strong Nick Cave influence), and “Saint Dymphna,” one of the projects most vast, bright and encouraging efforts. It stands right out from this collection of mostly dour, albeit deeply creative musical ideas.
The album ends in unsurprisingly odd fashion. The final track is a 16-second clip of Valerie Diaz encouraging the listener to dance and do what every it takes to fully absorb the art, “It could be the last dance you ever do.” Maybe she’s right. Maybe all of Xiu Xiu’s bold experimentation on OH NO are merely meant to break down the walls that keep people from dancing to and fully feeling everything that they consume without regard for others’ perceptions of one’s reaction. Stewart is certainly having fun, why can’t we?