It sounds like it’s been a shitty year for Jamie Stewart. Xiu Xiu’s central figure has dealt with the suicide of his father and seen the abuse of one of his students (Stewart teaches preschool) within the past twelve months. Given this, and knowing that moroseness as catharsis is key to Xiu Xiu, it’s no surprise that his glum, deeply personal and riveting music would, with the band’s third full-length, Fabulous Muscles, find its most accomplished incarnation.
Fabulous Muscles is Xiu Xiu’s defining work, juxtaposing a sly pop awareness against the noise and sadness that characterized 2003’s A Promise and the band’s 2001 debut, Knife Play. "Crank Heart" begins with an 8-bit Nintendo electro-beat — almost straight from Mega Man or Metroid — then segues into a trite, throbbing Miami club beat that bores itself and stops and starts again until everything crashes into Stewart’s screaming, "Lighting it up!"
This is, in the record’s first minute, a perfect example of how Stewart has found a new effective way to conduct his theatrics; Xiu Xiu is, for now, catchy in a fucked-up art-rock approach. This continues with the band’s best song yet, "I Love the Valley OH!" A simple guitar riff, reminiscent of early-’90s rock, guides the song as a drum throb accompanies Stewart’s desperately angry vocals. Many times on Fabulous Muscles Stewart sounds like he may explode, but here he practically does, singing, "I won’t rest while you break my will/ Je t’aime the valley/ Je t’aime the valley oh!" His blood-curdling scream — perhaps the most satisfying scream ever recorded — is the culmination of every emotion on the Xiu Xiu map.
The hissing noise and multi-instrumentation on the slower "Bunny Gamer (b)" and "Little Panda McElroy (b)" are close to Knife Play‘s overall feel, featuring Stewart’s breathy vocals and whispering confessionals. And the title track is the oddest and most beautifully honest song he has done yet. Over an acoustic strum he sings: "Drape my hope upon the chance to touch your arm/ Cremate me after you cum on my lips." Wearing his bisexuality on his sleeve could be a turn-off for potential fans, but there lies the beauty in truth that Stewart’s music revolves around. Complete honesty in lyrics about himself and unflinching confessionals about how fucked up his life and the lives of those around him have become is the only fitting accompaniment to the dark explorations Stewart finds in music.
The only misstep on this record is the politically charged "Support Our Troops OH! (Black Angels OH)," where Stewart addresses a hypothetical U.S. soldier who has blown the head off in Iraqi child but is "too stupid, and too greedy and too unmotivated" to do anything else. Sure, this sort of dark storytelling fits in with the remainder of this pitch-black record, but the spoken-word element feels like an unwanted interlude in the context of a constant assault of new sounds and concentrated arrangement. Appropriately following the interlude is "Brian the Vampire," a synth-laced, dizzying assault. Here Stewart makes beauty out of shrieking and piercing resonance, layering another video-game rhythm underneath — "Run Run Run!/ I am thinking of you," he shouts to his victimized student.
A new version of "Nieces Pieces" turns up here as well, one of the highlights of last year’s scarce, acoustic-only Fag Patrol. Over a lingering trumpet, Stewart sings a lullaby to his niece — "I can’t wait/ to watch you get older …/ I can’t wait/ To watch you turn from good … to bad." As the record and the band evolve, the emotions and sounds evolve from anger to humor to sadness. This is highlighted on "Clowne Towne," an odd pop jewel that exemplifies the diversity of the record — a light background synth loop, a lush wave of strings, an acoustic guitar, and the band’s trademark clank-clank of drum machines all converge as Stewart confesses: "Clowne Towne/ revealing nothing/ Clowne Towne/ A big dumb kid/ Clowne Towne/ No exit." This is where he lives, where he writes from, and where he is challenging the way we think about honesty and innovation in songwriting.