If the most memorable works of pop culture over the last few years have one thing in common, it’s a creeping suspicion that our world stands on a precipice. Has there been a superhero movie in recent memory that hasn’t shown a city get reduced to rubble? Is Paul Schrader’s “First Reformed” a harbinger for the end times that sees radical action as the only means of preventing planetary collapse? Hell, not an episode of “Chapo Trap House” goes by without the hosts reminding us of the economic and environmental catastrophes capitalism leaves in its wake. Pop culture that “really says something about our day and age” feels like a gift sometimes, like something that commodifies existential torment and sells it back to you through the Sunny D Twitter page, but experimental rock outfit Xiu Xiu aren’t disingenuous. They weren’t back when people were shoving Freedom Fries down their maws in solidarity with George W. Bush, and if “Girl with a Basket of Fruit” is any indication, they’re one of the only artists that can truly capture the world’s horrors in 2019.
I wouldn’t ever describe any Xiu Xiu record as unchallenging, but even by their standards this album is harsh, with a crushing atmosphere largely indebted to industrial and glitch music. At times this album’s instrumentals sound like if Death Grips got tired of their usual production trickery and just started beating you over the head with their Casio drum machines. Frontman Jamie Steward is as unnerving as ever — no small feat if you’re acquainted with their discography — shouting himself hoarse, doing an MC Ride impression so remarkable that it even gives the rapper (screamer?) himself a run for his money and whispering ominously to you like you’re his victim in a slasher flick.
Most albums like this start off innocently, luring you into a false sense of security, but the opening title track here doesn’t even do that. Occasionally you’ll stumble upon some genuinely beautiful sounds, like on the stunning track “The Wrong Thing,” but even that only acts as a prelude for the song most likely to haunt your dreams, “Mary Turner Mary Turner.” This song recounts the tragic story of a young black woman who, while eight months pregnant, was lynched and killed by a white mob. In scary times like today, it’s often an easy habit to look to the past, but what Stewart does here is remind us the past is no stranger to the worst of humanity. He concludes the song with the couplet “Fuck your guns/fuck your war/ fuck your truck/fuck your flag” and it feels heart-wrenching as it does therapeutic, while being completely on brand for a group that was never one to shy away from ruffling feathers for civility’s sake. By exploring the new harsh and mechanical sounds of today while doubling down on everything that made them great in the first place, Xiu Xiu have shown themselves to be in a late-career renaissance.
Andrew Kilbride, a Staff Writer for the Voice, can be reached for comment at AKilbride21@wooster.edu.