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If you scare easily, don’t even think about popping Xiu Xiu’s latest long-player, Fabulous Muscles, into your CD player. That way lie nightmares—about sharks, car accidents, and clowns; about W’s inevitable second term; and about a certain high-school gym coach who, for reasons that aren’t yet entirely clear, morphs at regular intervals into the reptilian creature known to Saturday-morning TV fans of a certain age as a Sleestack.
On the off chance that maybe that last image is peculiar to, say, just me, here’s something we can all agree on: If on previous releases, the San Jose, Calif.–based band of post-postrockers has plumbed the depths of romantic despair, debilitating social phobia, and, um, romantic despair, on its third proper long-player, the group plumbs the depths of those depths. “Love Will Tear Us Apart” is a veritable “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” by comparison with most of the tracks Xiu Xiu is peddling on this one.
And nope, that’s not hyperbole. Moroseness is Xiu Xiu prime mover Jamie Stewart’s medium as much as music, so the Joy Division comparisons have followed him from the beginning. Xiu Xiu even covered the band on 2002’s Chapel of the Chimes EP, churning out a bracing and chaotic version of Ian Curtis & Co.’s “Ceremony” that replaced most of the original’s instrumentation with industrial-strength electronics and percussion. Such overt JD tribute isn’t paid on Fabulous Muscles, it’s true, but that group’s heavy spirit nonetheless pervades the disc—even on its, ahem, lighter songs.
Take the title track. On the surface, “Fabulous Muscles (Mama Black Widow Version)” would seem to be just your average shambolic love song, a fragile relationship ode stretched out luxuriantly over chord changes that Stewart strums delicately on a slightly out-of-tune acoustic guitar. His voice is possessed-sounding but lovely, a near-falsetto streaked hard with palpable desire. Yet the lyrics reveal one seriously creeped-out and deeply troubled young man. “Break my face in/It was the kindest touch you ever gave,” sings Stewart, before adding another choice nugget just a couple of lines later: “Cremate me after you cum on my lips.” If that doesn’t convince you that this is no ordinary love, keep listening: “Kneeling down before the now familiar flesh/Of your deformed penis.”
With “Support Our Troops OH! (Black Angels OH!),” Fabulous Muscles only goes from bad to worse—much, much worse. Amid painful feedback, slam-banging noises, and something high-pitched that sounds suspiciously like helium escaping from an overfilled balloon, Stewart poses this timeless query: “Did you know 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?” No need to quote the rest of the song’s spoken-word lyrics, which even to my jaded, Kucinich-admiring ears smack of smug, irresponsible political protest of the most abject kind. Suffice it to say that even the mighty Michael Moore would probably be offended.
That’s about as low as Fabulous Muscles goes, however. As gratuitously provocative as Xiu Xiu strives to be, it has made enough records to know that a relentless screed eventually gets on just about everyone’s nerves. So along with a bleeding and corroded heart, the band also tends to wear an ’80s-alt-rock jones on its collective sleeve.
“Crank Heart,” for example, opens amid synth blips and wind-up-toy percussion before seguing quickly into a twisted and satisfying rocker that conjures both Tears for Fears and Devo. And the track’s whooshing bass line, which positively blasts the song’s chorus into the stratosphere, is pure early-U2 bliss. Ditto for the chiming “I Luv the Valley OH!” Though lyrically, of course, Stewart is the anti-Bono: “I won’t rest until I forget about it,” he muses over his band’s rousing racket. “I won’t rest until I don’t care.”
“Brian the Vampire” continues the retro vibe, sounding like something Robert Smith might come up with if he were commissioned to soundtrack a video game. Spastic and percolating, the tune would work especially well laced through the lo-fi explosions and staticky rumbles of certified ’80s-era classics such as Defender or Missile Command. And “Little Panda McElroy (b)” is similarly molded, a haunted and synth-blasted weeper that finds Stewart uttering pathetic, one-day-at-a-time affirmations such as “I can stop punching my own face” and “I can stop hating my own heart.”
Ah yes, the lyrics—again. The 32-year-old Stewart should probably know better than to try to outdo his heroes in the self-deprecation department. Curtis and Smith each managed more than his fair share of artfully turned lines, and even Morrissey usually couched his bitterness and self-pity in literary terms, pressing his knowledge of Oscar Wilde and poetic meter into the service of a sad but fetching kind of pop-rock poetry.
What’s on display throughout Fabulous Muscles, on the other hand, is raw, unadulterated emotion. Very much unadulterated, in fact: Lines such as “What happens to you/When your dad hears your brother/Pull down your underpants?” and “Dad, what was Nigel supposed to do with your body/…It is hard for me to think something happy about you” make it clear that Stewart is still doing a lot of thinking about his undoubtedly traumatic childhood.
But if this an album about aftereffects, it’s less about living through them than living with them—nurturing them, even. Truly, only someone in love with his own wretchedness could pen a track like “Nieces Pieces (Boat Knife Version)”: “I can’t wait to meet the first boy that breaks your life,” Stewart sings. “I can’t wait ’til you realize the family you’ve been born into/I can’t wait to watch you turn from good to bad/I can’t wait to tell you your grandpa made your mommy/Play stripper while your uncle watched.”
Even if the music on Fabulous Muscles is occasionally gorgeous and seductive, its dejected and depraved lyrical stance siphons off most of that sonic allure, leaving not much besides bad vibes and ill will in its place. Great art has been made of less, sure. But until Stewart learns how to get out of his own skin, all his music will be good for is scaring us out of ours. CP