For a band so often considered combative and difficult, Xiu Xiu's latest album, Always, is surprisingly inviting. Frontman Jamie Stewart starts the record with "Hi," a song that offers all sorts of people the chance to greet him. It's the sort of broken, damaged folks you'd expect -- "If you have poked out your eyes, say hi" and so forth -- but it still inverts the isolation and depravity we tend to hear from Stewart on his records.
That (slightly) more welcome feel comes across in the first third of the record sonically as well. There's plenty of the dissonant grind Stewart has always dealt in, but the record opens as a pretty straightforward electro-pop affair. "Hi" nicely juxtaposes angular guitars with blippy keys around the breathy creak of Stewart's voice. "Joey's Song" is all airy keys and haunting backing vocals -- some combo of the Cure and Pink Floyd -- and even when buzzing sounds scrape away at the veneer, it's still a sweetly dark tune. "Honeysuckle" is a more stripped down affair, a more open-sounding thumper that lets small riffs echo out over a basic but effective drum beat.
Early on, Always presents itself as Stewart's most clear-eyed album yet, a move away from the rough eccentricities that made all the dread of earlier records so all encompassing. This fades eventually, though. As the album delves into more and more troubling material the sound that conveys that material gets equally jarring. "Factory Girls," about sexually abused migrant workers, is hushed and full of negative space and wildly upsetting. "Gul Mudin," about an Afghani boy murdered by American soldiers, sounds like the soundtrack from the scariest horror film you've never seen.
Those songs still include some of the pop cohesion of brighter moments on the record, so they work well (and overcome the sledgehammer subtlety of the lyrics) more often than not. They also play nicely next to songs like "Beauty Towne," the dark sequel to "Clowne Towne" on 2004's Fabulous Muscles. As we see the way damage resonates in these songs, hence the not-so-hopeful Always title, we also see the way Stewart's own musical past is full of its own links and cycles. We see him both extend and reimagine old ideas and, when he does, Xiu Xiu feels fresh.
There are plenty of moments, however, where Always feels like retread, or like its holding on to sounds and textures Stewart long ago left behind (or should have). The hyper-abrasive "I Luv Abortion" is the perfect example of this. Stewart's madman yelping may at first be a shot in the arm, but it soon becomes grating, along with the clatter of sound around him. Any crucial political point the song wishes to make is clobbered by the overblown delivery, one that -- in the face of smoother textures -- rings slightly hollow on Always. "Born to Suffer" starts as a nervy speed trial, but quickly overcrowds itself with sinister squeaks, obscuring Stewart's hushed vocals.
Those are the moments where we're reminded how Xiu Xiu usually gets itself into trouble, especially when you compare them to the laid-bare ache of the album's best song, the piano-heavy "The Oldness." The excitement of this kind of music is just how completely it commits to its over-the-top theatricality. But that doesn't mean it can't still go too far, and Stewart once again finds himself teetering on that tightrope between confrontation and irritation. In the past -- see Fabulous Muscles or The Air Force -- he's done so to brilliant results, but on Always the results are decidedly more mixed. The ideas it presents of consequence and scars, and the deep pathos with which they are conveyed, are often compelling, but the songs themselves work better here when they sand down the fangs a bit, a concession Stewart is rarely willing to make.