Xiu Xiu’s “Ignore Grief” Is the Feel-Bad Album of the Year (So Far)

Xiu Xiu’s Ignore Grief cover

“I’m not a big fan of the ‘Goth’ label. I much prefer ‘Sad Bastard Music.’” So reads a meme featuring my beloved Nick Cave, holding a cigarette with his hand to his head, possibly wondering why the hell his image has been used for a meme. Of course, Nick never said this. He’s as likely to acknowledge the Goth label as much as he is Sad Bastard Music, which is not at all. Yet, if you spend as much time as I do in corners of the Internet where Nick Cave memes appear with surprising frequency, you’ll recognize this quote—its popularity as head-scratching as Nick appears here. I mean, sad bastard music? Is that really better? Sure, I know the term comes from Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, that record store slacker romanticism novel that did a number on Gen X, but is this the label we need for unrelenting culture that revels in moping, moroseness, morbidity, and unbridled negativity?

For that, I much prefer John Waters’s term “feel-bad.” While he subtitled his 2022 novel Liarmouth as a “feel-bad romance,” Waters has used feel-bad to describe a significant number of movie recommendations on his annual ArtForum listicle, ranging from Xavier Legrand’s Custody to Jacques Nolot’s Before I Forget. It’s not just films, though. John also promotes the benefits of cozying up with a “feel-bad” book in Role Models: “A ‘feel bad’ book always makes me feel good.” Me too! And if a feel-bad book makes me feel good, a feel-bad album makes me feel even better, which is why I’ve been fully submerged within the depths of Xiu Xiu’s unwaveringly bleak and atonally infectious album Ignore Grief since (and even before) its release last week on Polyvinyl. So much so that as soon as I heard the album, wearing out my welcome on the allotted preview listens, I immediately bought a ticket to their upcoming New York show in April. Ignore Grief is the kind of album that demands to be played so obscenely loud that the audience pukes or passes out like Swans’ notoriously physically punishing shows.

Punishing would also be the perfect word for the experience of Ignore Grief. The album opens to immediate unease: the ominous tension of an ascending hum of guitar feedback sliding into oppressive hammering percussion, courtesy of new bandmate and former Devo member David Kendrick. This song, titled deceptively jauntily “The Real Chaos Cha Cha Cha,” features Angela Seo on vocals, splitting half the singing on the album with fellow bandmate and regular vocalist Jamie Stewart. Seo mostly mumbles in an alienated Kim Gordon monotone, though much softer and more broken than Gordon ever was. Similar to Stewart’s voice at its most trembling (they also let out a couple of full-throated yowls here), Seo’s voice wavers and weakens as if she’s been crying, which perfectly mirrors the lyrics. Well, when you can hear them. On “The Real Chaos Cha Cha Cha,” Seo’s voice is nearly lost under the aforementioned percussion and squeals of guitars, a bone-chilling noise that traverses the album, which sounds like a mixture of a cat being skinned alive, a baby wailing, and perhaps most accurately, Einstürzende Neubauten’s Blixa Bargeld’s trademark inhale-scream. What you can discern, though, is alarming such as whispers of: “Take it personally when I kill myself in front of you.” Huh? About four minutes into “The Real Chaos Cha Cha Cha,” the cacophony breaks into silence for a beat. Then, the roiling percussion continues, leaving the listener begging for relief. A relief that is certainly not provided by the subsequent “666 Photos of Nothing,” a lighthearted tale of a child being sold into sex work by a drug-addicted family member that begins with what seems like the Phantom of the Opera banging on organ keys.

If you’re asking, Emily, why would anyone want to listen to that? Fair. Xiu Xiu has never been known for producing the most crowd-pleasing music. Throughout their career, the band has ricocheted between two poles: an abrasive racket or dark yet danceable. Even their most accessible albums have a grim undertone. This includes 2016’s FORGET, which is a disco album for the shame basement with songs like “Queen of the Losers” that boasts dialogue like: “What’s your name? FUCKING NOTHING.” Ignore Grief clearly belongs to the former uncompromisingly discordant side of Xiu Xiu’s bipolarity with albums such as 2019’s Girl with Basket of Fruit and 2014’s Angel Guts: Red Classroom. However, even considered among these albums, Ignore Grief stands apart, pushing their musical experimentation to further and more terrifying limits. For example, though finishing with the metal machine music of “Red Classroom,” Angel Guts: Red Classroom still hosts songs like “Stupid in the Dark,” which would not be out of place played at a Goth night after TR/ST and Boy Harsher.

What makes Ignore Grief so sonically captivating, particularly in contrast to Girl with Basket of Fruit, which even I found grating (it’s probably Jamie Stewart’s Mark E Smith impression on the title track that I can’t get past), is the inclusion of a more expansive orchestral sound. This thrillingly transforms the album into a genre closer to experimental jazz than pure noise. Ignore Grief has much more in common with Barry Adamson’s film noir soundtracks to nothing than former overt Xiu Xiu influences like Suicide. In fact, my first impression of Ignore Grief was it was as if Xiu Xiu expanded the ghostly and atmospheric intro, “On The Wrong Side Of Relaxation,” from Adamson’s Moss Side Story into an entire album. Songs like “Tarsier, Tarsier, Tarsier,” “Pahrump,” and “Dracula Parrot, Moon Moth” feature chaotic bursts of doomed jazz saxophone as if Xiu Xiu listened to Angelo Badalamenti’s “Red Bats With Teeth” on repeat, mimicking Fred Madison’s red-faced, jazz-scored psychotic break in Lost Highway. Similarly, frantic flurries of jangling piano in “666 Photos of Nothing” seem as if David Bowie’s pianist Mike Garson from Aladdin Sane really did go insane. This is not to say their electro-synth industrial influences and distorted feedback disappear on this album. They remain on songs like the satisfying beat drops of “Border Factory” and the maddening throbbing “Esquerita, Little Richard,” which was the track I first connected with, likely because it has most in common with Xiu Xiu’s previous work.

Xiu Xiu themselves describe the album as a “record of halves”—not only that Seo and Stewart split the vocal work, but “Half of the songs are experimental industrial. Half of the songs are experimental modern classical.” Maybe, baby. But laying out this distinction actually obscures the engrossing cohesiveness of the album, which is one of its most rewarding qualities. The industrial and classical songs cannot be easily separated, but instead, weave seamlessly together with the pervasiveness of the gut-twisting, hair-raising screaming noises and the overwhelming air of dread. This immersive quality is further augmented by certain mysterious (if you’re a musical novice like me) yet familiar effects that crop up, knocking at your memory like nagging déjà vu. For instance, I immediately associated the crumpled paper/burning effect in “Maybae Baeby” with Dean Hurley’s Black Lodge soundscapes in Twin Peaks: The Return. And I’ll excuse my pull to always and tiresomely reference David Lynch by reminding readers of Xiu Xiu’s own Twin Peaks tribute album, 2016’s Plays the Music of Twin Peaks. 

With sound effects, slasher strings, monster movie organs, foreboding reed instruments, and seething ambient disquiet, Ignore Grief feels like a horror-flick soundtrack, which may just explain my obsession with it (I listen to instrumental horror soundtracks regularly. For relaxation). Probably the most obvious song to point to here is the finale, “For M.,” which begins with a migraine-inducing, skull-bashing battering ram of noise and dwindles into an extended eerie drone that reminded me of Bobby Krlic’s score for Midsommar before concluding with seconds of pure silence. That sonic void is one of the most unnerving moments on the album. Like this concluding abyss, some of the most subtle moments are not only Ignore Grief’s most existentially frightening, but its most memorable. This includes perhaps my favorite song, “Pahrump,” which is so fragile and ethereal that it reminds me of Anita Lane’s “Sugar in a Hurricane,” until the end, which is as if you stuck your head into an amplifier.

The horror sound is an ideal pairing for the album’s lyrical themes. If you’re wondering, there’s a reason I left the lyrics until (nearly) last in this review. Like most of Xiu Xiu’s music, they are almost beside the point. First, a listener can glean everything they need to know about Ignore Grief through the aural assault alone. Secondly, the vocals are buried under so many layers of instrumentals that the ear barely picks them up, making reading the lyrics a shocking experience: “They’re saying…WHAT?!!” The lyrics on Ignore Grief range from opaquely unsettling such as the opening phrase, “Rolling off the yucca, a lesser crucifixion onto blackberry thorns,” to downright unforgettably upsetting. For the latter, the imagery that endlessly disturbs me is in “Tarsier, Tarsier, Tarsier, Tarsier,” in which Stewart, at their most dramatically overwrought, appears to narrate a self-immolating hanging. If that wasn’t enough, they deliver this line with a piercing clarity: “I binged before so shit would plume all over his carpet.” A line so nauseatingly evocative, so viscerally deranged, so queasily abject, so simply Dennis Cooper that it is seared into my subconscious. Unmercifully.

Overall, the lyrics are so oblique that it’s difficult to discern exactly what the narrative is other than, at best, the threat of a gruesome demise or, at worst, brutal fucking murder in the case of “For M.,” which is rivaled by only Ethel Cain’s more melodic and cannibalistic “Strangers” off 2022’s Southern Gothic white trash feel-bad album Preacher’s Daughter as the most distressing final song I’ve heard in a long while. This audio obsession with impending doom and death isn’t just because Xiu Xiu wants to revel in fatalism, but the album’s inspiration is mid-20th century “teenage tragedy” songs, also known, as Wikipedia tells me, as “splatter platters” (a term I prefer). From The Shangri-La’s “Leader of the Pack” to Jan and Dean’s “Dead Man’s Curve” to Mark Dinning’s “Teen Angel,” most of these 1950s and 1960s teen tragedy songs typically end with the object of the singer’s (or singers’) affection being smeared across the road. But there were some variations within this genre such as my favorite, Jody Reynolds’s “Endless Sleep,” in which Jody’s baby just walks into the ocean for an extended nap. Of course, these teen tragedy songs were instrumentally as camp as camp can be, just begging to be featured on a John Waters movie soundtrack. Xiu Xiu, conversely, strips away any sort of novelty kitsch to take the tragedy seriously (though in their utmost seriousness and aggressive inaccessibility, there is a bit of unintentional camp here). Much of this has to do with half of the tales on the album are, in fact, culled from real-life traumas happening to those around them—drug addiction, sex trafficking, suicide, abuse—which are blended together with the imagined ones to create some sort of nightmarish conglomeration.

Teenage tragedy songs are not the only mid-20th-century music to haunt the album, though. Flamboyant, big-haired, queer performer and influencer of Little Richard, Esquerita, otherwise known as Eskew Reeder Jr, is name-dropped (along with Little Richard) in the song “Esquerita, Little Richard,” as well as the subsequent “Maybae Baeby,” titled after Esquerita’s own “Maybe Baby.” I’m embarrassed to admit I wasn’t familiar with Esquerita who is a true filth elder before doing research to write this review. Much to my unending shame. I mean look at him! Listen to him!!

Beyond his expert piano playing and whoops and yells, which make me want to tear down the street like Divine, Esquerita’s life is also a tragedy that goes unarticulated on Xiu Xiu’s album. In the mid-1980s, it was reported he was seen washing car windshields in Brooklyn for tips shortly before he died of complications from AIDS, buried on Hart Island. Xiu Xiu does not tell his story, but perhaps it’s not completely correct to say it’s unarticulated. The band does confront and challenge us for not already knowing it, as well as bypassing all the other—told and untold—horror shows. On the raucous “Esquerita, Little Richard,” the album’s name makes its way into the last lines of the song, which expresses a manic desire for escapism: “Anything could happen. Tear it up, strut your stuff. Be disappointed when you wake up. Ignore grief. Ignore grief.”

And through this affectingly disconcerting album, Xiu Xiu has rendered ignoring impossible.

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