There’s a certain point in any given Xiu Xiu song where everything goes completely to hell. Shrieks and thuds emanate from some unholy depth as the entire structure approaches collapse under the unbearable emotional weight. Jamie Stewart sounds as if he’s shouting at some unknown point beyond the wreckage, remaining in his very shaky stance as it all goes down. This occurs in “Muppet Face,” from La Forêt after the first chorus, just as the sing-songy “doot-doot-doo” line concludes and what sounds like a jackhammer tears into the otherwise gorgeous melody. The most well known of these happenings, occurs around 1:46 in “I Luv the Valley OH!” from Fabulous Muscles, in which the music briefly pauses and Stewart lets out a cathartic, gloriously cleansing “OHHHHHHH!” It’s a wonder to me how any of the songs find their way out of the flaming disaster that they spiral into, yet somehow they do, held up by the impossible strength of a drum machine and unlikely beauty.
Xiu Xiu’s fifth album, The Air Force has many of these violent outbursts, be it the digital noise that spirals out of control in “Boy Soprano,” the cathedral organ din that marks the climax in “Bishop, CA” or the bassy buzzing on “PJ in the Streets…”, yet their presence is subtler. These are quiet collapses, woven delicately into the fabric of the songs, rather than torn straight through. The songs on The Air Force are some of the most accessible Stewart has written to date, built on a solid foundation and intricately pieced together. They’re still Xiu Xiu songs, of course, so they’re nowhere near ordinary, or even really safe, but they are really, really good and incredibly melodic.
La Forêt may have been more spacious and minimal, but The Air Force opens with one of Xiu Xiu’s most awkwardly pretty and gentle tracks, “Buzz Saw.” The song contains a simple piano melody that never escalates into cacophony, though the slightly unsettling percussion (pots and pans, garbage can—who knows?) and synth, which sounds appropriately enough like a buzz saw, do tempt oncoming destruction. However, an eerie calm becomes of the song, ghostly voices filling the space left void by the absent percussion. Its haunting grace is echoed in Stewart’s lyrics “your acne is like pearl/mine I swear is like brimstone,” making even the flaws of an admired one seem angelic.
Then there’s “Boy Soprano,” a song that approaches normal, but never gets there, thankfully enough. It’s distorted and it’s unsettling, and Caralee McElroy’s flute seems to lure the town’s critters into a bottomless, coarse-walled pit, yet it still carries a strong melody. Rhythmically pulsating and even anthemic, this is the closest Xiu Xiu comes to a hit, though “Save Me Save Me” is neck and neck. Less distorted than “Boy Soprano,” “Save Me” treads upon stutter step beats and pretty violin courtesy of Nedelle Torisi, laying down a delightfully baroque bed for Stewart’s typically disturbing, though no less creative lyricism.
“Hello From Eau Claire” contains the first ever lead vocal on a Xiu Xiu song by Caralee McElroy, and the music, a childlike mixture of bouncing beats and glockenspiel, is unsurprisingly the most atypical on the album. “Vulture Piano,” the song that follows, is the album’s melodic pinnacle. Here, we are treated to a howling Tourette’s flare-up from Stewart that rivals even “I Luv the Valley OH!” and an exotic, spooky flute intro from McElroy, yet it’s the subtle yet catchy hooks in the song that truly standout. It’s not said often enough that Xiu Xiu can write an emotionally soaring anthem when they choose to.
There are some oddities—notably “Saint Pedro Glue Stick,” an instrumental with koto, and “Wig Master,” a strange effects-filtered spoken word track—and this is to be expected. It’s hard not to be drawn to more gorgeous moments, however, like the gentle licks of “The Pineapple vs. the Watermelon,” which lay a funereal bed for Stewart’s story of a friend who committed suicide (“it’s so clear you missed/what we saw in you/green like flame/someone felt something pure/and told it all to you“). Then of course there’s that heart-wrenching centerpiece, “Bishop, CA.” What begins as a quietly intense electro-laden track turns gothic with its haunting middle section, becomes cringe-inducing with its mentions of incest and mine-collapse deaths, and finally goes hypnotic with Stewart’s repetition of “walla walla walla walla hey hey.” It’s by no means the weirdest song Xiu Xiu has recorded, but it is one of the most unpredictable, even if tempo and key remain constant.
I’ve listened to this album over and over again, waiting for it to fall apart, but it never does. The Air Force even sounds, dare I say it, confident, definitely more so than any Xiu Xiu release before it. Jamie Stewart proved his worth as one of today’s most formidable songwriters on A Promise and Fabulous Muscles, and The Air Force places him a few notches higher. I’m just going to have to say it—this is Xiu Xiu’s best album.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.