After a decade of putting more and more weight on the firmer terra of pop, Jamie Stewart has finally taken his Xiu Xiu project to its logical threshold: a song called “Black Dick.” Appropriately, “Black Dick” begins with a chintzy Casio-tinged beat, but swiftly rots into an industrial scree that must be—what?—a comment on sexual identity via race, or a surreal parody of pornographic archetypes? Chances are it’s intended to be a little bit of both, wiped down the back of the listener’s psyche like an especially messy example of cubism capturing all facets at once of a cultural monolith no one else wants to touch with a 10-foot pole.
It almost doesn’t even matter, because by the time Stewart’s repeating the word “dick” in his now-patented melodramatic, hushed falsetto, and a bracken of analog synths screams and pulses around him like the root system of veins on said object, the word practically loses all meaning and context. What is this thing, and why does he speak of it so nightmarishly?
Ironically, “Black Dick” is one of the most palatable songs on Xiu Xiu’s Angel Guts: Red Classroom. After five successive releases consistently demonstrating that Stewart is a songwriter who’s found the perfect balance between accessibility and confrontation, Angel Guts recedes overtly, and proudly, into the disturbing, though often hilarious, eroticism to which Stewart once prescribed back when he was featuring pictures of naked, pubescent Vietnamese boys on the cover of his albums. Two-thousand and three was a time when every song Stewart penned seemed to be about semen and sexual violence, so it’s not entirely unexpected that a concerted turn away from the kind of art pop of Women As Lovers and even Dear God, I Hate Myself is a concept album loosely centered around the identically titled film central to Japan’s 1970s “Roman porno” movement, and is just as visceral, insane, desperate, goofy, uncomfortable, and obnoxious as much of the work that gained Stewart a following over a decade ago.
That said, it’s probably a certifiable cop-out to suggest that the degree to which you take to Xiu Xiu’s latest may bear some proportionality to how well you’ve familiarized yourself with Stewart’s work at its most classically shocking, but the sentiment speaks more to the power of the band’s music than attempting to describe why “Black Dick” is appealing both despite and because of its obscenity. Stewart’s greatest gift as a songwriter isn’t his fearlessness, or even his ostensibly total lack of shame; it’s that he’s able to express a very traditional allegiance to pop music within the context of some very terrifying soundscapes. Angel Guts may not be the definitive statement its press anecdotes paint it as, the long-awaited synthesis of Stewart’s most challenging aspects cradled carefully by his most digestible, but it does further reveal how well he sells Xiu Xiu’s extremes without compromising the grit of the band’s basest elements.
Stewart has always had an impeccable ear for melody, perhaps best illustrated by how admirably he and Michael Gira once covered “Under Pressure” without molesting its attractive core. And here, though one has to dig a bit deeper, the catchiness still abounds: In the rising chorus of single “Stupid in the Dark,” or the harried beat of “Adult Friends,” stippled and playful before it cowers under a swarm of pig squeals, Stewart considers small slices of pleasantness. He provides teensy, unblinking eyes amid brutal storms. That “Bitter Melon” is a calypso song brushed with a deep hue of sadness should be of no surprise given how technically adept Stewart can be when he gets out of the way of his tendency to burn down his own songs; that “Botanica de Los Angeles” sounds like a cross between M83 and some deep cut off Coil’s Horse Rotorvator is only worth noting in that it may be the warmest song Xiu Xiu’s ever recorded.
“I hate everyone but you,” Stewart gasps on “Cynthia’s Unisex,” and whether he’s speaking to Cynthia or to his audience, in a troubled way it’s quite touching. It may very well be the closest he’ll ever get to saying, “I love you.” In that sense, it’s a strangely lovely moment among often purposely un-lovely music, and whether you’ve stocked up the patience required to endure the sonic tantrums for which Stewart’s known in order to reach the kernel, any kernel, of unabashed loveliness, Angel Guts is yet another example that the world needs a guy like Jamie Stewart treating music the way Jamie Stewart does: painfully, harshly, intuitively, and with psychotic aplomb. Dear God, thank you for a band like Xiu Xiu. Now please turn them off.