Since 2002, Xiu Xiu has released one album and countless singles and split EPs every year. This prolific output matched their ascent into critical acclaim. An increasingly substantial fan base was rabid for new recordings and, sometimes, details of the personal lives of the members. The new album, “The Air Force,” represents something of a return to form for the group and is rightly being hailed as their best yet.
The personal nature of Xiu Xiu’s music generates new fans and stokes the flames of obsession for existing devotees. The first two full-lengths, 2002’s “Knife Play” and 2003’s “A Promise,” featured frontman and Xiu Xiu nucleus Jamie Stewart channeling a broad spectrum of unsettling and disturbing emotions through his vocal work and lyrics, backed by a sizable cast of supporting musicians.
The compositions were brutal, beautiful things. They evoked, accurately or otherwise, the image of a loose-knit caravan of nonmusicians backing a charismatic shaman whose reportage of the hell they all lived in threatened to engulf not only him, but also everyone else.
That palpable sense of impending disaster was lacking on 2004’s “Fabulous Muscles.” Stewart seemed to have reigned in a bit, taking closer control of the music and transforming his songwriting from the oblique barbed bludgeon of his early work into a stealthy dagger of pop efficiency. For the first time, Stewart pulled his attention away from interpersonal catastrophe to global concerns, writing a few songs specifically about the grotesque repercussions of this country’s foreign policy.
This was a logical and artistically valid move. But one couldn’t help feeling that perhaps the Stewart who had previously created such compelling work from the vantage point of seemingly insurmountable emotional instability wouldn’t have been psychologically capable of forming a coherent thought on such matters. Something had been lost, and listeners would’ve been justified in breathing a tentative sigh of relief for the mental health of the artist they loved.
“The Air Force,” while probably the group’s most sophisticated album yet, is lyrically in the reactive mode of the first two rawer albums, as opposed to the contemplativeness that allowed them to tackle global issues. This is an album about the contrasting shades of dependence and destruction in relationships. Stewart is again cast as a reporter from the field, relaying various accounts of abuse, neglect and, of course, a healthy dose of death.
Musically, the trio of Stewart, Caralee McElroy and new contributor Greg Saunier from Deerhoof piece together a more percussive, richer tapestry of sounds, utilizing samples and acoustic instruments shuffled through the classic Xiu Xiu electronic abattoir.
While the album’s front-loaded with a few concise pop gems, “Vulture Piano” stands out as an anomaly on the Xiu Xiu songbook for having such a recognizable and repetitious chorus. Its electronic stomp is reminiscent of the clamor-pop of the group’s 2002 cover of Joy Division’s “Ceremony” on “The Chapel of the Chimes” EP.
“Hello From Eau Claire” is probably the feel-good hit of the album, featuring McElroy in her second major recorded lead vocal for Xiu Xiu. Catchy like a cheese grater to the face, the typical Xiu Xiu clings and clangs are joined by one of their greatest hooks, forcing you, as they often do, to sing along to something you’d rather not think about.