A handful of movies (Monster, Boys Don’t Cry, Grave of the Fireflies) have ranked among the best of the last couple decades while ensuring that anyone would never want to see them a second time. These films are so emotionally raw and effective that only the most dedicated of cinephiles and drama junkies would willingly experience the journey again.
“Support Our Troops OH! (Black Angels OH!),” the Generation Kill-inspired avant-jazz, spoken-word protest document at the center of Xiu Xiu’s Fabulous Muscles is a similar work, painting images of grizzly acts and the still oddly disquieting indifference they inspire. While the mess-cum-art is mesmerizing, it’s a harrowing experience that never loses its edge. The success (relative to the above-mentioned films) of “Support Our Troops” as a work worthy of return trips is that it’s a merciful 5 minutes.
One could easily imagine Jamie Stewart, the Larry Clark-like genius behind Xiu Xiu, developing “Support Our Troops,” or any of the emotionally filthy tone poems that comprise 2004’s Fabulous Muscles into a sonic opera of tear-pouring proportions. Instead, Fabulous Muscles is condensed into one of the darkest 40-minute pop-music masterpieces ever composed.
Take, for example, the last minute of “Nieces Pieces (Boat Knife Version)” and the intro of “Clowne Towne”: a guitar riff that feels like cold water down a warm back, a slowly crescendoing organ, undersea techno blips, T.S. Eliot’s “ragged claws” as percussion, a string arrangement as whirlpool, a staticy guitar lazily rowing into the gorgeous quatrain “Up and down through what you thought would be your future / became the dark reminder of / what a rash and inconsistent faith you’ve had / in loving your true self and your true love.” In two-and-half minutes, Xiu Xiu takes listeners through an entire galaxy of sound and emotion, something that most artists can’t do in an entire career.
While “Clowne Towne” and “Support Our Troops” represent the extremes of FM (and Xiu Xiu in general), “I Luv The Valley OH!” is the hit, the club banger for arts and crafty hipsters. The simple bass line, impossibly compressed beat, and barely-there guitar riff take the most cacophonous moments of Joy Division and turn it into an anthem that’s somehow fun in the midst of buckets of dreariness. This is the 00’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” and you will slow dance in your socks to it before you drift off into your valium-aided unconsciousness.
With the better-than-chiptune “Bunny Gamer” and the title track, the only surreal homoerotic love/hate ballad you’ll ever hear or need to, Fabulous Muscles lies directly in the middle of Xiu Xiu catalog, between the most challenging and dark of their work and their most consciously pop efforts. This median is where so many of the greats have produced their best works. In the spirit of walking that thin line, Stewart and Cory McCulloch find a fine balance between heart attack and orgasm, but hold back just enough to make repeat listens a desirable conclusion.