As much as this may feel like the truth, it's somewhat unfair to call Xiu Xiu a band defined by unfulfilled promise. Because for the group, helmed by Jamie Stewart with a singular sense of affected batshit insanity, the things that make it good are the same things that make it bad: the flair for tawdry hysterical fatalism, the idiotic lyrical tangents, the buzzing, stylistically swerving compositions. It all depends on the measure.
In this respect, they're like the friend who always makes a scene—perversely entertaining, but with the constant potential for uncomfortable embarrassment. To be gracious, this does establish them as one of the few groups with an insistent streak of dangerousness, a quality that's hard to fault for often being borderline repellent. Listening to a Xiu Xiu album for the first time can feel like walking through an abandoned minefield, waiting for the pointless explosion that's going to ruin everything.
In this sense, Dear God, I Hate Myself may not be Xiu Xiu's best album, but it certainly equals the heights of earlier works without any of the obvious pitfalls. Stewart, newly on his own without the support of collaborator Caralee McElroy, forsakes none of the threatening verve that has always been a double-edged sword. The album is certainly Xiu Xiu's most vibrant experiment since Fabulous Muscles, thankfully lacking most of that record's sabotaging self-hatred.
In some ways, Dear God feels like the first time where the band's promise is not buried in difficult, oblique posturing. There's still a certain level of spastic, theatrical lunacy to endure, but here it seems more tempered in service of the material. And the production is so good that a song like "Gray Death" can get by with a chorus of "Beat beat beat me to death," alternating between death-knell tympani strikes and several scuzzy alt-rock guitar solos layered in knowingly cheesy distortion.
The album stands out as often exhilarating collision of disparate elements. Songs like "House Sparrow" and the title track are insistently surprising, studded with effects and strange musical decisions. Even the relatively normal "Cumberland Gap" seems sinister and about to burst, despite a standard banjo crawl and strangely ordinary lyrics. Other songs demonstrate similar subtlety, and their constant success proves a newly discovered truth about the band: The threat of an outburst is far more satisfying than the reality of one.