Xiu Xiu’s OH NO is an album of duets. The group’s bewitching music has always sought out the beyond, and OH NO (Polyvinyl Records, March 26) pushes Xiu Xiu even further into the unknown. Singer and songwriter Jamie Stewart shares these scintillating songs with guests who, over the years, have had an impact and influence on him both personally and musically. Opener ‘Sad Mezcalita’, featuring Sharon Van Etten, is a stunning introduction to the album’s dazzling and diverse musicality. The kaleidoscopic sounds are musically-alive and exciting, the duets going back and forth between one another before merging into a blissful sonic cocktail.
To name a few of the collaborators, Chelsea Wolfe, Liz Harris (Grouper), Alice Bag, Haley Fohr (Circuit des Yeux), and George Lewis Jr. (Twin Shadow) all add their own distinctive vocals, placing them deep within the record’s grooves. Every single duet is an intrinsic, vital component of the music’s overarching organism, which has no real definable form thanks to its diversity and boundless musical approach; it’s always shifting, always dancing. Written and recorded in Xiu Xiu’s home studio in LA, OH NO emerged from anguish and isolation. However, without going through pain and dark trials, the record would not stand as it does now, or even be as complete as it is. It has been shaped by struggle, and it has the struggle to thank for its eventual recovery and inspired sound design. OH NO is more than an outlet or a release, as it’s described as being ‘the sound of finding one’s place in the world after the destructive powers of jealousy and mistrust make any map seemingly unreadable’. Community and friendship are at the heart of OH NO, the duets shining examples of the power of friendship and musical unity.
During the writing of the album, some of Stewart’s long-standing friendships and musical partnerships were ‘abruptly and unilaterally severed after surprising acts of betrayal and disrespect’. And anguish can be heard within Stewart’s vocals, which can at times sound hurried and anxious. They’re also full of truth, and a want to restore and heal something which has been wounded. Stewart went through a period of ‘dull isolation’, cancelling tours and speaking publicly about mental health issues. He closed himself off from the world and its ongoing, often cruel assaults, but an artist’s inspiration can often be most fruitful in their darkest era, and people he hadn’t spoken to in years reached out to him, offering support. Xiu Xiu fans wrote to him, as his music had helped them through their own difficulties and personal tragedies, offering care and providing the sustenance and inspiration he needed to emerge once again.
As a result, OH NO fizzles with energy and a newfound appreciation for the unbreakable nature of true friendship and the reassuring mainstay of empathy that sits at the heart of human existence. Saying that, these songs can skitter around dangerously, like high voltage. Environmental destruction is also high on the agenda here, and Stewart isn’t afraid to confront the issues which plague the current century. But these are shared problems and they require shared solutions; they are all of our demons, and environmental destruction affects every single person on the planet. There is a universality to this record, the reassurance of shared existence, which gives the record warmth and affection. We’re not alone anymore – we all live on one rock, cradled in space.
Stewart’s vocals are expressions of love and care, but also of urgency. Through the earlier disconnect, stronger, worldwide connections are being formed, growing stronger and stronger like chains of steel. Along with Seo, Stewart speaks with direct and personal experience of abandonment and dissolution, out of which new things are always created; the ending of a chapter is also the beginning of a new one. From there, Xiu Xiu take their first steps into a brave new world, one of renewed optimism, but also forged in the fires of past experience.
“The guest stars of OH NO reflect the types of people, and many of the very same, who helped remind me that the ratio of beautiful humans to shitty humans is more like 60/40 rather than what I have always assumed was 1/99,” says Stewart. “Although there is an ‘I HATE PEOPLE’ pin on my guitar strap, I hate them less now.”