The Anniversary

Fabulous Muscles Turns 20

5 Rue Christine
5 Rue Christine

Though I think a large percentage of my fellow critics would agree that Xiu Xiu’s 2004 album Fabulous Muscles — which turns 20 today — is their best, I’m not sure how much of my stance has been swayed by hearing it at 17 and soon finding it very important during the shittiest years of my life. The misery lit trappings were what sparked my curiosity at first, the lyrics about suicide and incest and war crimes and being cremated with cum on lips satisfying my adolescent taste for transgression, but after a while Xiu Xiu’s music started to become my personal palace of misery, a place where I could sympathize with someone else’s catharsis while keeping my own feelings tightly bottled.

It seems Jamie Stewart, founder of Xiu Xiu, sees the band that way too. Listen to the Drunk Commentary on Fabulous Muscles Stewart posted on Bandcamp not too long ago and you will hear two coping mechanisms at war with each other. On the one hand, Stewart tries to pretend that all the intense, graphic topics grappled with in their music doesn’t get to them too much so that the public doesn’t think they’re simply dumping their baggage on their audience. This is how people tend to talk about trauma in polite conversation, dropping truths like “My dad killed himself” with affected casualness. Meanwhile the record plays, with Stewart emoting within an inch of their life in the background. In “Nieces Pieces,” Stewart goes silent for about 40 seconds, and no wonder. If the song is to be interpreted as a letter to Stewart’s niece, the lyrics suggest that Stewart’s sister was sexually abused by their father. Unsurprisingly, Stewart has said their family disapproves of the song’s content; “I can’t wait until you realize the family you’ve been born into,” goes one line.

“I don’t want to write anything that I know would make somebody feel bad, and I definitely may have done that on Fabulous Muscles a couple of times,” Stewart said in a contemporaneous interview with the San Antonio Current. “Artistically I’m glad I did them, but in my personal life I feel like I might regret it a little bit.” It’s no surprise for a performer to be more comfortable with expressing their innermost feelings onstage or on record than in their personal life, but Stewart takes it to such an extreme that nearly all of their music sounds like something that ought to be private. Few of the great indie rock records deal with subject matter this extreme in such simple language, and some of the most gut-wrenching lines on Fabulous Muscles are Stewart merely explaining something that happened, as if to remind a complacent listener that such cruelty does happen, all the time, behind closed doors. Stewart is often compared to the cult-followed author Dennis Cooper, and indeed Fabulous Muscles seems kin to the whole tradition of trauma porn popular 20 years ago, where authors found catharsis detailing the most painful events from their lives. Stewart even published their own book last year entitled Anything That Moves, which, like their music, does not hold back from relaying anecdotes of everyday horror.

Some of those authors, like JT LeRoy or James Frey, fabricated a lot of the stories. It’s hard to verify the veracity of much of what Stewart has said on record and for context (fans particularly doubt that collaborator Caralee McElroy is really their “long-lost cousin”), but maybe that’s a good thing, especially because the title of one earlier Xiu Xiu track makes it very easy to look up one of Stewart’s exes. But whether or not characters like the abused child in “Brian The Vampire” (named for the bags under his eyes from many sleepless nights) are drawn from Stewart’s life, the pervasive impression is of a world where suffering is a fact. This is not simply a festival of transgression that shows the listener horrific situations to make some kind of vague point about the inherent nature of man. On songs like “Brian The Vampire” and “Clowne Towne,” a “Walk On The Wild Side” update that psychoanalyzes a group of punk-house denizens with a mix of pity and horror, Stewart makes us wonder how the people in our lives might be suffering, how our friends who put up a self-effacing front (like Stewart, come to think of it) might be hurting inside.

Much of the coverage of Fabulous Muscles at the time emphasized how much more “pop” it was than their prior works, not least on “I Luv The Valley (OH!),” which chronicles a dysfunctional family history over a chord progression that’s the closest Xiu Xiu ever came to sounding like the Matches. This might imply that it’s their most “accessible” work, but that isn’t a word that can really be applied to a band whose music is nearly always recommended with a caveat. If anything, Stewart’s anguish sticks out more over major progressions and strummed guitars. The tale of sexual dominance on “Fabulous Muscles” would be less jarring if it sounded like a car crash rather than an acoustic power ballad. Human transgressions seem to have intruded into a world where love and positivity exist rather than being a feature of a pervasively evil one. “Bunny Gamer” and “Little Panda McElroy” are love songs, though the characters singing them seem to have little to offer their partner and view being loved as a favor someone else can do for them. Both songs are slathered in video-game noises, implying that the singers live in virtual worlds and have no frame of reference for the real one, right down to loving a real person.

Each of the 10 songs on this 37-minute release bears the album’s load equally, and Fabulous Muscles has the fearsome consistency of a classic-rock concept album. Yet two stand slightly apart from the rest of the songs. One is “Support Our Troops (OH!),” which describes war crimes perpetrated by a soldier in Iraq that Stewart seems to have known sometime in their past — maybe in high school, which would explain why Stewart refers to him as a “jock.” It’s an effective protest song on a visceral level, putting the listener in the headspace of how horrific war actually is rather than standing at a distance and offering platitudes.

Then there’s “Mike,” the closing track, which deals with the suicide of Stewart’s father, who had been a musician and went on to produce Billy Joel’s Piano Man. The suicide occurred two years before the release of Fabulous Muscles. After a spoken-word narration of the scene of Michael Stewart’s death — reconstructed by Jamie, who was not present at the time, from anecdotes by family and friends — the singer sings a recollection of their final phone call with their father. “I love you and I will always, always miss you,” Stewart sings, which is devastating enough, even not knowing that Michael allegedly replied, “No, you do not.” What follows is ancient, universal, and totally mundane: a fart joke, “pull my finger,” followed by a few bursts of flatulent guitar. Once you’ve come to know Stewart’s music and understand the constant wrestling impulses within, a joke feels like the only appropriate way to end an album this painful.


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