The knock against Xiu Xiu, the experimental-pop brainchild of Jamie Stewart, is that all of the idiosyncrasies and the self-indulgence reduce an elaborate put-on, the kind of deliberate, insular remove that calls into question their motivations in eliciting very real emotional reactions from their cultish fans (see also: Matmos, Sparks, or even latter-day Tori Amos). The band’s fifth album, The Air Force, offers no shortage of evidence to strengthen that case, but it also shows a greater restraint than previous Xiu Xiu records, and, while that doesn’t make it any more “accessible,” it places a greater emphasis on the latter half of that “experimental-pop” label.
Stewart structures his songs like miniature horror films. At his manipulative worst, he resorts to “jump scares,” using unexpected dynamic and tempo shifts or atonal vocal or orchestral outbursts to pull the listener into a song, often at the precise moment that he needs to emphasize a particular line or phrase in the prose-poetry that constitutes his lyrics. On The Air Force, he keeps these tactics to a minimum: “Vulture Piano,” for instance, nearly settles into a conventional pop hook before Stewart breaks out one of his larynx-shredding yelps. In his best songs, then, Stewart’s subversion of his own talent for writing pop music creates a discomfiting atmosphere that enhances the dense emotions in his narratives. Here, this means giving lead vocal duties to Caralee McElroy to highlight the genderfuck of “Hello From Eau Claire,” and laying down a catchy guitar figure to underscore the nihilistic “The Pineapple vs. the Watermelon.”
If lacking the thematic coherence of the politically-charged La Foret or the alternately furious and vulnerable Fabulous Muscles, the songs on The Air Force trade in volatile sexual energy and a degree of self-loathing that’s more fully-realized than most goth-metal bands would dare record. That certainly gives the album weight, but it’s weight that is yoked to a few too many cheap shock tactics to have the impact that it should. For as well as Stewart clearly understands the importance of structure, it’s perhaps asking too much—and baiting too obvious a deconstructionist reading—to expect an album about deep, irreparable flaws to be deeply, irreparably flawed.