No one is really foreign to the concept of “sad music.” We all have a track that we tend to queue up when we’re feeling sad or when we’re pissed off. Music is perhaps the artform most proficient in eliciting emotion. When you hear “sad music,” however, you’re likely to think of artists like Modest Mouse or Frank Ocean, artists who supply heavy lyrics over comparably light tunes. This isn’t to say that the mentioned artists haven’t released songs that just sound sad without the lyrics (one needs only to listen to Frank Ocean’s “Blonde” for proof of that), but there are certain masters of darkness in music that they can’t compete with.
“Darkness” in music is a bit more complicated than sadness. Sadness is the emotion that the music riles up within you; darkness refers to the tone of the track itself. Sad songs can be described as having “somber” or “sullen” tones, but idyllically sad music doesn’t hold a candle to a truly “dark” tone. A dark song provides near sensory overload and isn’t something that most people — even those who appreciate the genre — are willing to listen to every day. Perhaps the most popular icon in dark music is the band Swans and their depressive frontman Michael Gira. From “Filth” to “The Glowing Man,” Swans are known for getting underneath your skin and forcing you to feel exactly what they want you to feel. Given that Xiu Xiu performed as an opener for Swans in a past tour, it’s only fitting that their musical darkness should be appreciated too.
And appreciated it is. Xiu Xiu’s largest recent hit was “Xiu Xiu Plays the Music of Twin Peaks,” a barren record that captures the spirit of the show perfectly while also molding it in their own vision. Shortly after that album had run its course and the hype had subsided a bit, Xiu Xiu announced “Forget” (stylized as “FORGET”), their tenth studio album.
“FORGET” hits hard and it hits almost immediately with the opening track “The Call.” Immediately a panicked and energetic voice yells (perhaps “raps”) some senseless lyrics into the listener’s ears, serving to perk them up for the work of art that would follow. Frontman Jamie Stewart’s idiosyncratic singing voice seeps in alongside driving percussion and a droning synthesizer. There is little variation and little other way to describe the song. The chord changes from time to time, but it is an otherwise solid blast of noise that is backed by percussion, vocals and a few other synthesizer effects. Somehow, though, it comes together into a fantastically dark track.
The next track, “Queen of the Losers,” takes this even further. A repetitive banging of drums and what sounds like an acoustic guitar are slammed on every beat alongside ear-wrenching synthesizer effects for the verses of the track, but a recurring aspect of “FORGET” begins in the chorus. A higher synth comes in to complement the noisier ones, and suddenly the song sounds a bit happier, for lack of a better word. For a moment the clouds part and the song is a careless-if-not-crazy pop track, creating a perfect irony as it plays over Stewart’s singing of “everyone hates you, the pain has just begun.”
All of a sudden, the listener realizes that Xiu Xiu has released their most accessible album yet. The darkness is still there; the needlessly grotesque and violent lyrics are still there; the overwhelming bursts of noise lie just beneath the surface of what can ostensibly be called experimental pop songs. They’re not tracks you would hear at a club, they’re rather perforated with harsh noises and interspersed with less-than-dancy elements (an exception to this being “Wondering,” which serves as perhaps the most upbeat track on the record).
From the restrained and balladic “Get Up” to the dissonant and nearly melody-less “Hay Choco Bananas,” Xiu Xiu has truly provided their widest array of sounds for this record. There is the aforementioned dancy and poppy and the aforementioned bursts of dark noise, but there are also masterful hybrids of the two. Tracks like “Jenny GoGo” and “At Last, At Last,” for example.
It’s an album that truly feels like it can serve everyone. Dedicated fans may appreciate the darkest parts and newcomers to the genre can easily get into the more cadence-driven moments of the record. There’s plenty of each to go around, but it’s surely not Xiu Xiu’s darkest album; don’t go into it expecting this. I would still classify it as “dark,” however. And, if you’re going into it looking for some darkness, look no further than the masterful and hard-hitting finale, “Faith, Torn Apart.”
We’re led into the eight-minute track with the chaotic clinging of dozens and dozens of bells and chimes. The lead synth suddenly bursts its way into the track, a slow cadence on heavy drums takes backstage with a sort of deep-jungle tribal sound and a debilitating bass synth begins to overwhelm the ears. Most profound on the record, however, are Stewart’s painfully stretched and delivered vocals. I’ve failed to define what I meant by “idiosyncratic” earlier, and that’s that Stewart sings like a man straining very hard to hit the highest note he can at any given time. To the unlearned listener, it can get quite grating, and given the environment of music he surrounds his vocals with, I suppose that’s the point. On “Faith, Torn Apart” all of the ingredients come together perfectly to form what is the darkest landscape on the record.
And just as it seems the song is drawing to a close, a nearly three-minute monologue begins. It’s sneeringly read by transgender icon Vaginal Davis and serves as some sort of first-person description of a woman lost to the international sex trade. There are innocent lines like “My room is a mess, my hair is black and blue,” there are vaguely worrying lines like “My gaze will never settle […] my village is 6,600 miles away” and there are downright depressing lines: “My skirt is thrown up over my head […] my skin feels like a breaking vase […] my family will never see me again […] my dead-end childhood is just beginning […] my age is on a card and can not be disputed.” All of these respective lines, of course, build up (or down, you could say) in tone as the monologue drags on. I remember my slow realization of its true nature when I first heard it. The incessant chimes and bells still play just behind the words, creating a mocking allusion to a church alongside the depressing story. But finally, to solidify the song’s identity as a legendary dark track, we hear “It doesn’t matter what you think, do anything you like, because I was born dead, and I was born to die” and the record abruptly ends, ringing of unheard cries for help that the listener imagines, staring blankly at a wall, unable and unwanting to move.