Jamie Stewart is a morgue-serious songwriter. And yet it's impossible for me to take the Xiu Xiu frontman seriously. The ache in his indie rock takes introspective moping to such an exaggerated extreme it's difficult to endure with a straight face.
Stewart homes in on a particularly precious style of suffering (see also: Bright Eyes, another pity party performer who has gained great success from sounding beaten) that infects everything he produces, and the journey into this committed misery begins in his voice. His words quiver with the vulnerability of a child on a crying jag, even when he's breaking into a yell. He has perfected the sound of being one misheard remark away from a histrionic breakdown. His choruses are such clingy pleas that they trigger physical discomfort if you're not a fan.
The actual lyrics only boost these levels of cringy drama queendom. In "Fabulous Muscles," for example, Stewart begs in a weary whisper, "Cremate me after you come on my lips, honey boy." He uses the same hush to barely mouth the words, "I can't wait to tell you I punched your mommy in the chest in front of her new friends" on "Nieces Pieces."
Behind him the music is jagged, a postpunk bramble of buzzing guitars and agitated electronics, their direction artfully haphazard and more dynamic than the singer. Other times, his crying games are played out against more minimalist backgrounds: tiny stirrings of guitars and strings that make his weighty self-loathing even more indulgent.
Stewart's practiced melancholy has plenty of company, to be sure. Since forming in the Bay Area more than five years ago, Xiu Xiu has fanned its dozen-plus releases around the world, touring Serbia, Mexico, Taiwan, and Russia. Spin calls the band "seductive," while Pitchfork raved about Stewart's "honesty." And now his publicist sends the news that Stewart is playing a coveted string of solo shows this month. He'll offer his "rawest, most emotional state" for fans who want to see "that explosion of sadness and weight for themselves." (These shows are the preview for Xiu Xiu's 2010 release — an album one imagines won't be a bastion of cheer with a tentative title like Dear God, I Hate Myself.) For nonbelievers like me, who find Stewart's art arching too far over the top already, these naked performances sound like experiments in severe uneasiness. His music isn't a celebration of being somber — it's endless whining that becomes a burden on repeated listens.
It's not that I dislike depressed music in general. There are, of course, plenty of talented tortured artists out there, songbirds who lock themselves in cages of self-pity and crow about emotional imprisonment. But the good ones offer respite from the puffy eyes by proving, through their lyrics or tone, that they've got a fighting spirit in there somewhere. Look, for example, at the dry wisecracks of Magnetic Fields' Stephin Merritt, or at the ebullient hooks lifting the gallows humor in Elliott Smith's catalog. Hell, even Scott Walker could sound like a confident man as he described the remains of a rotting world, and Morrissey is one of the cheekiest sad bastards around.
With Stewart, though, there's too little subtlety, and no unexpected tangents — into levity, irony, ferocity of spirit —to release Xiu Xiu's music from its tortured headmaster. It's exhausting, listening to all this dramatic anguish. And if there is a droll bone in Stewart's body, it's long since splintered from so much dejection.