This last year hit us all so hard. Besides the obvious and devastating losses, there has been a feeling of existential dread and grief that has permeated our collective consciousness. Cue Xiu Xiu to make the perfect soundtrack to how we have all been coping. The band’s latest album OH NO was born out of anguish and isolation and it shows. Throughout the record’s fifteen tracks, each accompanied by a different vocalist, Jamie Stewart and Angela Seo display their emotions in an almost unbearable way. While the band has always been challenging, here their songs highlight a new sense of heightened fervour. Joined by an array of amazing artists such as Sharon Van Etten, Circuit des Yeux’s Haley Fohr, Liz Harris, Alice Bag, Chelsea Wolfe, Owen Pallet, and Twin Shadow’s George Lewis Jr., among many others, Stewart and Seo treat us to an incredible journey in which Stewart’s misanthropy is balanced by some genuine moments of beauty and heartbreak. It isn’t the easiest listen but it is enriching, cathartic and above all, a document of the lengths that music can go to soothe even during the most difficult times.
The record kicks off with “Sad Mezcalita” and Sharon Van Etten’s lovely tenor dancing alongside Stewart’s raw emotionality. It’s striking. Seo’s production is not only awash in texture and colour but a startling ennui. Percussion rockets around every angle of the internal space as both singers climax from a spoken word verse to a devastatingly soaring chorus. Deb Demure joins Stewart on “I Cannot Resist” and its unembraceable sadness. Halfway through Seo reflects her sonic palate onto Stewart’s disheveled vocals as the entire endeavour descends into a conclusion that is as vulnerable as it is jarring. Depending on your mood, some of the tracks on OH NO can come off somewhat heavy handed but the band isn’t trying to be subtle here. The conceit of every song being a duet is a big, bold move and one that pays off throughout. Haley Fohr joins on “The Grifters” and her interplay with Stewart is gorgeous. The title track “OH NO” with Susanne Sachsse throws some new colour onto the canvas then what we’ve been invited to experience thus far. The looping, off kilter beats, wobbly spaced out vocal effects build to an accelerated pace in the post chorus refrain allowing some much needed excitement into the proceedings. The trend continues on “Rumpus Room” which is a cross between something that Nick Cave and The Gorillaz would come up with together. Chelsea Wolfe and Stewart tackle The Cure’s “One Hundred Years” and do it absolute justice, adhering to the original’s aesthetic but still managing to make it their own.
When Stewart and Seo began writing the material that makes up OH NO, during a time that was overwhelmingly filled with, as they say, a series of personal relationships that were severed because of surprising acts of betrayal and disrespect. There were tour cancellations and, with Stewart, a closing off of himself to the world but with the support of their fans and the collaborators that stepped up to contribute to OH NO, it was realized that even when we are at the end of our figurative ropes that there are people out there to help lessen our burden. This sentiment is the feeling that is achieved while listening to the songs on OH NO. That even in the darkest of times, we are never truly alone and that reaching out through this darkness can result in a reminder that through this pain, this solitude and this isolation that there is someone out there to help alleviate the burden.
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