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“Ian Curtis Wishlist,” the scary-good closer to Xiu Xiu’s A Promise, re-creates the Joy Division singer’s suicide as an Unsolved Mysteries segment—jumpy cuts from a noose to a Curtis look-alike, accompanied by spine-tingling tones. But when Xiu Xiu singer Jamie Stewart throws himself into the narrative (he bloodcurdles, presumably as Curtis, “Do you love me, Jamie Stewart?!” just before a theremin emits a death wail), it’s either a hilarious parody of overdramatization or a fan’s fixation gone frighteningly too far.
Xiu Xiu’s previous album, 2002’s excellent Knife Play, suggests both. The California quartet approximated synth-pop the way Captain Beefheart might—pot-and-pan rhythms and harshly squealing melodies—but hammed it up with drama-club death rattles. A Promise, not quite up to Knife Play‘s snuff but close, shirks the hyperbolic clamor (both musical and theatrical) only slightly. In the strikingly melodic “Sad Pony Guerrilla Girl,” Stewart romanticizes front-line gentrifying hipsters, warbling “I like my neighborhood/I like my gun” like Lewis and Clark in newsboy caps.
Much of the album, though, he sings from a female perspective, lamenting that he’s “only got one bra to my name” and stuttering “I am the dumbest bitch on the planet.” He even applies a breathy, Lamaze delivery to a glacial cover of Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car.” But the gender-bending seems merely quaint compared to the weirdness of cuts like “20,000 Deaths for Eidelyn Gonzalez, 20,000 Deaths for Jamie Peterson.” Stewart ends the gorgeous song, whose arrangement bites the sparse glitches of Björk’s Vespertine, by sobbing, “Cherry, oh Cherry/While your friend killed her baby/Cherry, oh Cherry/I am at your command.” The potential interpretations of these lines are limitless (is Stewart an aborted baby? Has he joined a cult? Is he concerned with fruit reproduction?) and pointless. It doesn’t matter what they mean, only that he means them.