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The Muse: Fear and Love in Xiu Xiu’s “Knife Play”

Image Courtesy of Wikimedia via Creative Commons License

The Muse is a creative publication that aims to share the interests, talents, and research of students on campus. The following represents the opinion of the student writer and does not represent the views of Loyola University Maryland, the Greyhound, or Loyola University’s Department of Communication.

California-based experimental band Xiu Xiu has been operating for over twenty years culminating in the release of nearly as many albums, each a collage of fears and memories from the band’s one consistent member, frontman Jamie Stewart.

When speaking with Our Culture Magazine, Stewart refers to the band’s music as “a reconstruction of negative emotions from something self-destructive into something productive,” using Xiu Xiu as a vessel to bottle their sorrow and hate, transforming those emotions into something tangible. Xiu Xiu’s earliest record, 2002’s sorrowful classic “Knife Play”, is where the band’s most intense and stress-inducing work is found.

“Knife Play” is often categorized by fans online as “terrifying,” Stewart’s projects frequently are for their violent and jarring sound. Where later Xiu Xiu albums such as “Ignore Grief”, released earlier this year, get somewhat lost in their experimentation, “Knife Play” remains a focused effort, staying consistently captivating and heartbreaking from start to finish. “Knife Play” is a record chock full of metallic instrumentation and discordant songs, yet they still remain catchy and danceable, with specific moments of aural pleasantry propelled by the synths and brass instrumentation on songs such as “Luber” and “Suha.” Across the album, Stewart sings of their experience battling suicidal thoughts, violent breakups, STDs, and feeling like a stranger in one’s own body. Stewart pours out stories of incredibly intimate and emotional aspects of their life, the sorts that consume one’s thoughts throughout every action they take. It is a brutally honest and crushing portrayal of their mind.

A sense of comfort is created within the listener through this intense revealing of anxieties. It’s empowering seeing someone confront these issues so publicly and vigorously. While these emotions and memories have been haunting Stewart for years, the direct confrontal of them on this record is a proactive and inspiring fight against their negative thoughts. Most emblematic of this battle is “Knife Play’s” closing track, “Tonite and Today (What chu’ talkin’ ‘bout).” Here, singing over a lone piano, they begin with the lyric “Tell me why they hurt you like that. I can’t see how you go on.” Stewart speaks of someone in their life who has suffered greatly but has continued to push forward through all that pain. In the chorus and final lyric of the song, Stewart kisses this person, vowing that they “won’t forget it or why,” signifying their commitment to follow in this person’s footsteps, working to overcome their own insecurities and trauma. 

While every song on this album is great, some highlights include “Don Diasco” which opens the record with a loud, stress-inflicting crashing of bells, then transitioning into a swirl of erratic, metallic screeches, tamed by a consistent thumping drum beat and piercing synthesizers. “Luber” is comparatively soft with smooth horns backing the majority of the song. The lyrics begin during a moment of near silence as Stewart sings of a close childhood friend who unknowingly “sav[ed their] soul.” Stewart reminisces nostalgically on this period of their life, a time they wish they could travel back to. “Suha” is a gut-wrenching study of the titular character Suha’s depressive thoughts, featuring smooth horns as well. The most powerful moments of the song often lack any vocals at all, leaving the listener alone to reflect on what they’ve just been told by Suha/Stewart. 

“Knife Play” is an extreme and tear-jerking record, one that inspires the listener to face their own insecurities. For those who appreciate shocking music and want to feel both emotionally comforted and crushed simultaneously, “Knife Play” should be the next thing you listen to. 

Personal rating: 9/10

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