By Shelby Len, aka DJ yuppie
Upcoming album OH NO! Polyvinyl, 2021.
The singles “Rumpus Room (feat. Liars)” and “A Bottle of Rum (feat. Liz Harris), released March 4, preview the anticipated release of Xiu Xiu’s 19th studio album OH NO (to be released March 26). Upon first glance, the iconography of the album cover (which is the same for both the single and the forthcoming album) is quite simple: a pair of long-lashed feminine eyes with thin, arched brows who seems to be staring daggers at us, rendered in bright red monochrome on a beige background. From the art, I expect the music to stomp and spit on me, to hate me as its listener.
The expectation that this pair of songs will hate me is based not only in the album art but also in my previous experience in listening to Xiu Xiu. They are experts on the musical expression of emotions such as agony, sorrow, bereavement, desolation through the incricate weavings of quivering, exposed vocals and interspersed harsh noise. In fact, I’m incapable of listening to Xiu Xiu frequently due to the sheer potency of the music. It was with these expectations at the forefront of my mind that I listened to “Rumpus Room” and “A Bottle of Rum.”
Now, to the music in question. “Rumpus Room” opens with a pulsating bassline that immediately calls to my mind the now-TikTok famous Home Depot theme; it is certainly an unprecedented start. This pulse quickly builds to the cacophonous clangs and bangs and taut yelling customary of vocalist Jamie Stewart, hallmarks familiar to anyone who’s listened to Xiu Xiu before. However, we should consider that in inventorying all its parts, “Rumpus Room” is an indie dance-pop song, something far from the pared-down, more analogue instrumentation of previous efforts (for those curious, sites such as rateyourmusic.com would categorize their music as “experimental rock” or “post-industrial”). With “Rumpus Room” ‘s repetitive chorus underpinned by a simple three-note bassline, it is a song whose instrumentation wouldn’t be out of place ambiently throbbing in an H&M, and by this I mean that it sounds both contrived and uninspired.
To counter the kitsch of the instrumentation, paradoxically, are the almost annoyingly redundant lyrics (“Rumpus, rumpus room, room/ Black, black, blue, blue, blue, blue” over and over), which paint a dark, impressionistic tableau that has little to offer in imagery or narrative save for the brief reference to Hot Cheetos and Fuego Takis. Despite the simplicity resembling the formal conventions of dance pop (I’m thinking of how as a child I tried to count how many times Rihanna croons “we found love in a hopeless place” in the song of the same name), the lyrical sparsity has a much more unsettling effect. There’s a rift between the lyrics and the unassuming melody, which seems to be Xiu Xiu trying a new mechanism to make the listener uncomfortable, to make them squirm in their seat as they listen.
Spoiler alert: expect minor whiplash when “Rumpus Room” transitions to “A Bottle of Rum,” whose D major sunniness, heartily strumming guitars and wistful harmonies grâce à Liz Harris all point fingers to David Bowie’s “Heroes.” At first listen, the saccharinity of it made me want to hurl; while listening I felt like I was starring in the sequel to Perks of Being a Wallflower. However, similar to “Rumpus Room” the instrumentation poses a friction with the lyrics, as the crowd-pleasing indie rock flavor of the song clashes with minimal lyrics evoking bitterness and hurt (“Ricochet the pain/A bottle of rum”).
Juxtaposing the effect of instrumentation and lyrics is, I should add, a tried and true method in songwriting. The first incarnation of this that comes to mind is in country music, where lyrics of sadness and bitterness sound completely at home with danceable, uplifting melodies (see Lorretta Lynn’s “Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin'” or Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried”). However, a more recent example that I would point out specifically because of its status as a chart-topper was Drake’s “Hotline Bling”, whose melody (despite being in a major key) has an undeniable air of melancholy that matches the defeatist lyrics. By pointing this out, I want to make clear that what Xiu Xiu is doing with these singles isn’t necessarily a completely original idea, even within the mainstream. But it is nonetheless compelling to have transcribed this method to their noise-pop, experimental repertoire.
I wonder whether the violent contrast between these two songs is gesturing towards a new incarnation of Xiu Xiu’s tradition of making music that hates us. In this light, my initial strong dislike for these songs might actually serve as a compliment. My only hope is that their daringness with form receives recognition, or at least that the release of OH NO! will signal a more promising future for their music than being resigned to the kitsches they play with.