A profound feeling of helplessness pervades Fabulous Muscles (on the 5 Rue Christine label), the latest offering from Oakland/Seattle crew Xiu Xiu. Subjects explored on its 10 cuts include desire, dominance, abuse and unrequited love. It confronts us with the disquieting reality that none of us are truly in control of our emotions or the sexual politics we encounter every day, despite the lies we might tell ourselves to the contrary. While previous Xiu Xiu albums have dealt with similar themes, the results up to this point have been more danceable than brooding and introspective. This one is a wholly different beast, one starkly beautiful in its structural minimalism and trembling emotionalism.
"Crank Heart" introduces the album's experimental electronic soul in a way that is, at first, playful. But a few measures in, the mood shifts abruptly to barely contained hysteria as singer Jamie Stewart's distorted vocals cut through a lurching, driving background din with lyrics anxiously suggesting systematic humiliation and personal violence. The gorgeous and hypnotic "Little Panda McElroy (b)" provides a sonic opiate -- and offers a much-appreciated glimmer of hope ("I can stop stealing money / I can stop hating my own heart / I can do it because of you") before the album veers into "Support Our Troops OH! (Black Angels OH!)," a harrowing and provocative anti-war spoken-word piece set to a creepy atmospheric electronic wash reminiscent in tone and execution to Suicide's infamously apocalyptic "Frankie Teardrop."
There's nothing remotely subtle about the seething hate on display here: "You shot your grenade launcher into windows and into the doors of people's houses / Why should I care if you get killed?" Things get even darker with the title track's candid and desperate homoerotic death trip revelations ("Cremate me after you c-- on my lips, honey boy / Place my ashes in a vase beneath your workout bench"), which are effectively rendered with nothing more than a pleading vocal and a plaintive acoustic guitar strum. "Clowne Towne" raises self-loathing to majestic heights with violin, viola -- and insightful humor ("Your true self has become weak and alone and annoying / And a true ridiculous dumb ass").
This is not an easy listen, to be sure, not something you'd throw on while entertaining the parents. But when you're alone and in the mood for an emotional free-fall, Fabulous Muscles is not too far from fab.
Publication date: 03/17/04