Jamie Stewart is definitely a bummer. A man of few positive affirmations, he continues on Xiu Xiu’s ninth studio album—the appropriately titled Always—to be recursive, dispirited, antagonized, and bitter. His wily charm is that he’s endearingly so. He opens old wounds with the grace of a jagged knife, and the catharsis feels great.
While experimentation and weirdness still abound—as on the abrasively sung-spoke “I Luv Abortion”—Always seems much more tempered than past efforts, extending the poppy sensibility of 2010’s Dear God, I Hate Myself. Tracks like “Beauty Towne” and “Born To Suffer” are heavy-hearted and personally wrought, buoyed by programmer Angela Seo’s airy electronics and textured orchestral flairs. The weight of the world isn’t all in Stewart’s head, however. “Gul Mudin” (about the Afghani teen murdered by U.S. soldiers) and “Factory Girls” (about Chinese migrant workers) are headline-inspired and dramatic, broadening Xiu Xiu’s assertion that it’s a dark and scary existence out there.
But, this time around at least, Stewart seems to have realized that he’s not entirely alone in this horrific misery. Like a manic-depressive roll call, lead single “Hi” opens the album with a warbling Stewart crying out, “If you’re wasting your life, say ‘hi’ / If you’re alone tonight, say ‘hi’.” Eerily cheery in its all-together-now insistence, the track’s energetic drums and echoing synths are paradoxically upbeat, danceable even. Could that be just the slightest taste of optimism on Stewart’s lips? Maybe, if just for one song.